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I N T A G 

c Hooks 

The Second Sex 



The Second Sex 

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908. In 1929 she became 
the youngest person ever to obtain the agregation in philosophy at the 
Sorbonne, placing second to Jean-Paul Sartre. She taught in lycees in 
Marseille and Rouen from 1931 to 1937, and in Paris from 1938 to 
1943. After the war, she emerged as one of the leaders of the 
existentialist movement, working with Sartre onLes Temps 
Modernes. The author of many books, including the novel The 
Mandarins (1957), which was awarded the Prix Goncourt, Beauvoir 
was one of the most influential thinkers of her generation. She died in 

Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier have lived in Paris 
for more than forty years and are both graduates of Rutgers 
University, New Jersey. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier were faculty 
members at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques. They have been 
translating books and articles on social science, art, and feminist 
literature for many years and have jointly authored numerous books in 
English and in French on subjects ranging from grammar to politics to 
American cooking. 




With an Introduction b\ Judith Thurman 

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fiVfl a division or kancom hovx. iki 



Le deuxieme sexe copyright © 1949 by Editions Gallimard, Paris 
Translation copyright © 2009 by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier 
Introduction copyright © 2010 by Judith Thurman 

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of 
Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, 
Toronto. Originally published in France in two volumes as Le deuxieme sexe: Les faits 

et les mythes (Vol. 1) and L 'experience vecue (Vol. 1 1) by Editions Gallimard, Paris. 
Copyright © 1949 by Editions Gallimard, Paris. This translation originally published 
in hardcover in slightly different form in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape, The Random 
House Group Ltd., London, in 2009, and subsequently published in hardcover in the 
United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 


Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. 

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows: 
Beauvoir, Simone de, 1908-1986. 
[Deuxieme sexe. English] 
The second sex / Simone de Beauvoir ; translated by Constance Borde and 
Sheila Malovany Chevallier. 
p. cm. 

1 . Women. I. Borde, Constance. II. Malovany-Chevallier, Sheila. III. Title. 
HQ1208.B352 2010 
305.401— dc22 

elSBN: 978-0-307-81453-1 


To Jacques Bost 

There is a good principle that created 
order, light, and man 
and a bad principle that created 
chaos, darkness, and woman. 


Everything that has been written by men 
about women should be viewed with suspicion, 
because they are both judge and party. 





About the Author 
Title Page 

Introduction by Judith Thurman 
Translators' Note 

volume i Facts and Myths 



Chapter 1 Biological Data 

Chapter 2 The Psychoanalytical Point of View 

Chapter 3 The Point of View of Historical Materialism 


Chapter 1 
Chapter 2 
Chapter 3 
Chapter 4 
Chapter 5 


Chapter 1 
Chapter 2 

I. Montherlant or the Bread of Disgust 

II. D. H. Lawrence or Phallic Pride 

III. Claudel or the Handmaiden of the Lord 

IV. Breton or Poetry 

V. Stendhal or Romancing the Real 



Chapter 3 
volume ii L ived Experien ce 


Chapter 1 Childhood 

Chapter 2 The Girl 

Chapter 3 Sexual Initiation 

Chapter 4 The Lesbian 


Chapter 5 The Married Woman 

Chapter 6 The Mother 

Chapter 7 Social Life 

Chapter 8 Prostitutes and Hetaeras 

Chapter 9 From Maturity to Old Age 

Chapter 10 Woman's Situation and Character 


Chapter 11 The Narcissist 
Chapter 12 The Woman in Love 
Chapter 13 The Mystic 


Chapter 14 The Independent Woman 

Selected Sources 



In 1946, Simone de Beauvoir began to outline what she thought 
would be an autobiographical essay explaining why, when she had 
tried to define herself, the first sentence that came to mind was "I am a 
woman." That October, my maiden aunt, Beauvoir's contemporary, 
came to visit me in the hospital nursery. I was a day old, and she 
found a little tag on my bassinet that announced, "It's a Girl!" In the 
next bassinet was another newborn ("a lot punier," she recalled), 
whose little tag announced, "I'm a Boy!" There we lay, innocent of a 
distinction — between a female object and a male subject — that would 
shape our destinies. It would also shape Beauvoir's great treatise on 
the subject. 

Beauvoir was then a thirty-eight-year-old public intellectual who 
had been enfranchised for only a year. Legal birth control would be 
denied to French women until 1967, and legal abortion, until 1975. 
Not until the late 1960s was there an elected female head of state 
anywhere in the world. Girls of my generation searching for examples 
of exceptional women outside the ranks of queens and courtesans, 
and of a few artists and saints, found precious few. (The queens, as 
Beauvoir remarks, "were neither male nor female: they were 
sovereigns.") Opportunities for women have proliferated so broadly 
in the past six decades, at least in the Western world, that the distance 
between 2010 and 1949, when The Second Sex was published in 
France, seems like an eternity (until, that is, one opens a newspaper — 
the victims of misogyny and sexual abuse are still with us, 
everywhere). While no one individual or her work is responsible for 
that seismic shift in laws and attitudes, the millions of young women 
who now confidently assume that their entitlement to work, pleasure, 
and autonomy is equal to that of their brothers owe a measure of their 
freedom to Beauvoir. The Second Sex was an act of Promethean 
audacity — a theft of Olympian fire — from which there was no turning 
back. It is not the last word on "the problem of woman," which, 
Beauvoir wrote, "has always been a problem of men," but it marks the 


place in history where an enlightenment begins. 

Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born in 
1908 into a reactionary Catholic family with pretensions to nobility. 
She had a Proustian childhood on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, in 
Paris. But after World War I, her father, Georges, lost most of his 
fortune, and without dowries Simone and her sister, Helene, had dim 
prospects for a marriage within their class. Their mother, Francoise, a 
banker's daughter who had never lived without servants, did all the 
housework and sewing for the family. Her pious martyrdom indelibly 
impressed Simone, who would improve upon Virginia Woolf's 
famous advice and move to a room of her own — in a hotel, with maid 
service. Like Woolf, and a striking number of other great women 
writers, 1 Beauvoir was childless. And like Colette, who wasn't (she 
relegated her late-born, only daughter to the care of surrogates), she 
regarded motherhood as a threat to her integrity. Colette is a 
ubiquitous presence in The Second Sex, which gives a new 
perspective to her boast, in a memoir of 1946, that "my strain of 
virility saved me from the danger which threatens the writer, elevated 
to a happy and tender parent, of becoming a mediocre 
author ... Beneath the still young woman that I was, an old boy of 
forty saw to the well-being of a possibly precious part of myself." 

Mme de Beauvoir, intent on keeping up a facade of gentility, 
however shabby, sent her daughters to an elite convent school where 
Simone, for a while, ardently desired to become a nun, one of the few 
respectable vocations open to an ambitious girl. When she lost her 
faith as a teenager, her dreams of a transcendent union (dreams that 
proved remarkably tenacious) shifted from Christ to an enchanting 
classmate named ZaZa and to a rich, indolent first cousin and 
childhood playmate, Jacques, who took her slumming and gave her a 
taste for alcohol and for louche nightlife that she never outgrew. (Not 
many bookish virgins with a particle in their surname got drunk with 
the hookers and drug addicts at Le Styx.) Her mother hoped vainly 
that the worthless Jacques would propose. Her father, a ladies' man, 
knew better: he told his temperamental, ill-dressed, pimply genius of a 
daughter that she would never marry. But by then Simone de 
Beauvoir had seen what a woman of almost any quality — highborn or 


low, pure or impure, contented with her lot or alienated — could expect 
from a man's world. 

Beauvoir's singular brilliance was apparent from a young age to 
her teachers, and to herself. An insatiable curiosity and a prodigious 
capacity for synthetic reading and analysis (a more inspired grind may 
never have existed) nourished her drive. One of her boyfriends 
dubbed her Castor (the Beaver), a nickname that stuck. She had a 
sense of inferiority, it would appear, only in relation to Jean-Paul 
Sartre. They met in 1929, as university students (she a star at the 
Sorbonne, he at the Ecole Normale Superieure), cramming, as a team, 
for France's most brutal and competitive postgraduate examination, 
the agregation in philosophy. (On their first study date, she explained 
Leibniz to him.) Success would qualify her for a lifetime sinecure 
teaching at a lycee, and liberate her from her family. When the results 
were posted, Sartre was first and Beauvoir second (she was the ninth 
woman who had ever passed), and that, forever, was the order of 
precedence — Adam before Eve — in their creation myth as a couple. 

Even though their ideal was of a love without domination, it was 
part of the myth that Sartre was Beauvoir's first man. After Georges 
de Beauvoir confronted them (they had been living together more or 
less openly), Sartre, the more bourgeois, proposed marriage, and 
Beauvoir told him "not to be silly." She had emerged from her age of 
awkwardness as a severe beauty with high cheekbones and a regal 
forehead who wore her dark hair plaited and rolled — an old-fashioned 
duenna's coif rather piquantly at odds with her appetites and behavior. 
Both sexes attracted her, and Sartre was never the most compelling of 
her lovers, but they recognized that each possessed something 
uniquely necessary to the other. As he put it one afternoon, walking in 
the Tuileries, "You and I together are as one" (on ne fait qu 'un). He 
categorized their union as an "essential" love that only death could 
sunder, although in time, he said, they would naturally both have 
"contingent" loves — freely enjoyed and fraternally confessed in a 
spirit of "authenticity." (She often recruited, and shared, his girls, 
some of whom were her students, and her first novel, She Came to 
Stay, in 1943, was based on one of their menages a trois.) "At every 
level," Beauvoir reflected, years later, of the pain she had suffered and 
inflicted, "we failed to face the weight of reality, priding ourselves on 
what we called our 'radical freedom.' " But they also failed to fault 


themselves for the contingent casualties — the inessential others — who 
were sacrificed to their experiment. And the burden of free love, 
Beauvoir would discover, was grossly unequal for a woman and for a 

If Beauvoir has proved to be an irresistible subject for biographers, it 
is, in part, because she and Sartre, as a pharaonic couple of incestuous 
deities, reigned over twentieth-century French intellectual life in the 
decades of its greatest ferment. But the most fascinating subjects tend 
to be those richest in contradictions, and The Second Sex, no less than 
Beauvoir's prolific and important fiction, memoirs, and 
correspondence, seethes with them. Deirdre Bair, Beauvoir's 
biographer, touches upon a fundamental paradox in the introduction to 
her admirable life. She and Sartre's biographer Annie Cohen-Solal 
had been lecturing together at Harvard. At the conclusion of their talk, 
she writes, "I could not help but comment to my distinguished 
audience that every question asked about Sartre concerned his work, 
while all those asked about Beauvoir concerned her personal life." Yet 
Sartre's work, and specifically the existentialist notion of an 
opposition between a sovereign self — a subject — and an objectified 
Other, gave Beauvoir the conceptual scaffold for The Second Sex, 2 
while her life as a woman (indeed, as Sartre's woman) impelled her to 
write it. He had once told her that she had "a man's intelligence," and 
there is no evidence that he changed his mind about a patronizing 
slight that she, too, accepted as a compliment until she began to 
consider what it implied. It implied, she would write, that "humanity 
is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to 
himself," and by all the qualities (Colette's strain of "virility") she is 
presumed to lack. Her "twinship" with Sartre was an illusion. 

The Second Sex has been called a "feminist bible," an epithet bound 
to discourage impious readers wary of a sacred text and a personality 
cult. Beauvoir herself was as devout an atheist as she had once been a 
Catholic, and she dismisses religions — even when they worship a 
goddess — as the inventions of men to perpetuate their dominion. The 
analogy is fitting, though, and not only to the grandeur of a book that 
was the first of its kind but also to its structure. Beauvoir begins her 
narrative, like the author of Genesis, with a fall into knowledge. The 


two volumes that elaborate on the consequences of that fall are the 
Old and New Testaments of an unchosen people with a history of 
enslavement. ("Facts and Myths" is a chronicle of womankind from 
prehistory to the 1940s; "Lived Experience" is a minutely detailed 
case study of contemporary womanhood and its stations of the cross 
from girlhood through puberty and sexual initiation to maturity and 
old age, with detours from the well-trodden road to Calvary taken by 
mystics and lesbians.) The epic concludes, like Revelation, with an 
eloquent, if Utopian, vision of redemption: 

The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and 
transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes; both are eaten away 
by time, stalked by death, they have the same essential need of 
the other; and they can take the same glory from their freedom; if 
they knew how to savor it, they would no longer be tempted to 
contend for false privileges; and fraternity could then be born 
between them. 

The first English edition of The Second Sex was published in 1953. 
Blanche Knopf, the wife of Alfred Knopf, Beauvoir's American 
publisher, had heard of the book on a scouting trip to Paris. Thinking 
that this sensational literary property was a highbrow sex manual, she 
had asked an academic who knew about the birds and the bees, H. M. 
Parshley, a retired professor of zoology at Smith College, for a 
reader's report. His enthusiasm for the work ("intelligent, learned, and 
well-balanced . . . not feminist in any doctrinaire sense") won him the 
commission to translate it. But Alfred Knopf asked Parshley to 
condense the text, noting, without undue masculine gallantry, that 
Beauvoir "certainly suffers from verbal diarrhea." Parshley appealed 
to the author for advice on the "minor cuts and abridgments" that 
Knopf felt were essential for the American market. She was either too 
busy or unwilling to reply, because he heard nothing until he received 
an indignant letter protesting that "so much of what seems important 
to me will have been omitted." But she signed off graciously on the 

While the translation was a labor of love from which Parshley 
nearly expired, he lacked a background in philosophy, or in French 
literature. He also lacked a credential more pertinent, perhaps, to the 


audience for a foundational work of modern feminism, a second X 
chromosome. This eagerly awaited new translation, by Constance 
Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier — the first since Parshley's — 
is a magisterial exercise in fidelity. The cuts have been restored, and 
the English is as lucid and elegant as Beauvoir's ambition to be 
exhaustive permits it to be. She is a bold, sagacious, often dazzling 
writer and a master aphorist, 3 but no one would accuse her of being a 
lapidary stylist. It is hard to find a description for the prose that does 
justice both to its incisive power and to its manic garrulity. Elizabeth 
Hardwick came closest, perhaps, when she called The Second Sex 
"madly sensible and brilliantly confused." 

The stamina that it takes to read The Second Sex in its entirety pales 
before the feat of writing it. (Sartre was happy when his beaver was 
busy, Beauvoir told Bair, because "I was no bother to him.") One is 
humbled to learn that this eight-hundred-page encyclopedia of the 
folklore, customs, laws, history, religion, philosophy, anthropology, 
literature, economic systems, and received ideas that have, since time 
began, objectified women was researched and composed in about 
fourteen months, 4 between 1946 and 1949, while Beauvoir was also 
engaged with other literary projects, traveling widely, editing and 
contributing toLes Temps Modernes, Sartre's leftist political review, 
and juggling her commitments to him and "the Family" (their 
entourage of friends, groupies, disciples, and lovers) with a wild, 
transatlantic love affair. On a trip to America in 1947, she had met the 
novelist Nelson Algren, the most significant of her male others, and it 
was he who advised her to expand the essay on women into a book. 
He had shown her the "underside" of his native Chicago, and that 
year and the next they explored the United States and Mexico 
together. Her encounter with a racism that she had never witnessed 
firsthand, and her friendship with Richard Wright, the author of 
Native Son, helped to clarify her understanding of sexism, and its 
relation to the anti-Semitism that she certainly had witnessed firsthand 
before and during the war, but, with Sartre, had never openly 
challenged. The black, the Jew, and the woman, she concluded, were 
objectified as the Other in ways that were both overtly despotic and 
insidious, but with the same result: their particularity as human beings 
was reduced to a lazy, abstract cliche ("the eternal feminine"; "the 
black soul"; "the Jewish character") that served as a rationale for their 



Not all of Beauvoir's staggering erudition and mandarin authority in 
The Second Sex is reliable (she would repudiate a number of her more 
contentious or blinkered generalities, though not all of them). Her 
single most famous assertion — "One is not born, but rather becomes, 
woman" — has been disputed by more recent feminist scholars, and a 
substantial body of research in biology and the social sciences 
supports their argument that some sexual differences (besides the 
obvious ones) are innate rather than "situational." Instead of rejecting 
"otherness" as an imposed cultural construct, women, in their opinion, 
should cultivate it as a source of self-knowledge and expression, and 
use it as the basis to critique patriarchal institutions. Many readers 
have also been alienated by Beauvoir's visceral horror of fertility — the 
"curse" of reproduction — and her desire, as they see it, to homogenize 
the human race. 

Yet a revolution cannot begin until the diffuse, private indignation 
of individuals coalesces into a common cause. Beauvoir not only 
marshaled a vast arsenal of fact and theory; she galvanized a critical 
mass of consciousness — a collective identity — that was indispensable 
to the women's movement. Her insights have breached the solitude of 
countless readers around the world who thought that the fears, 
transgressions, fantasies, and desires that fed their ambivalence about 
being female were aberrant or unique. No woman before her had 
written publicly, with greater candor and less euphemism, about the 
most intimate secrets of her sex. 

One of those secrets — the hardest, perhaps, for Beauvoir to avow 
— is that a free woman may refuse to be owned without wanting to 
renounce, or being able to transcend, her yearning to be possessed. 5 
"As long as the temptations of facility remain," she wrote, by which 
she meant the temptations of romantic love, financial security, and a 
sense of purpose or status derived from a man, all of which Sartre 
had, at one time or another, provided for her, a woman "needs to 
expend a greater moral effort than the male to choose the path of 
independence." Colette, who would have smiled, and not kindly, at 
the phrase, "moral effort," states the problem less cerebrally: "How to 
liberate my true hope? Everything is against me. The first obstacle to 


my escape is this woman's body barring my way, a voluptuous body 
with closed eyes, voluntarily blind, stretched out full, ready to perish." 

To a reader of this new translation — a young feminist perhaps, for 
whom the very title may seem as quaint as a pair of bloomers — I 
would suggest that the best way to appreciate The Second Sex is to 
read it in the spirit it was written: as a deep and urgent personal 
meditation on a true hope that, as she will probably discover, is still 
elusive for many of us: to become, in every sense, one's own woman. 

— Judith Thurman 

1 . Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Louisa 
May Alcott, Christina Rossetti, Lou Andreas-Salome, Gertrude Stein, Christina Stead, 
Isak Dinesen, Katherine Mansfield, Edith Wharton, Simone Weil, Willa Cather, Carson 
McCullers, Anna de Noailles, Djuna Barnes, Marianne Moore, Hilda Doolittle, 
Marguerite Yourcenar, Sigrid Undset, Else Lasker-Schuler, Eudora Welty, Lillian 
Hellman, Monique Wittig, to name a few. 

2. It has been credited by Beauvoir and others for having given her the scaffold, 
although a journal from her university years, which was discovered after her death by 
her companion and adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, suggests that 
Beauvoir had arrived at the notion of a fundamental conflict between self and Other 
before she met Sartre, partly through her reading of Henri Bergson, but partly through 
her own struggle — an explicit and implicit subtext of The Second Sex — with an 
imperious need for love that she experienced as a temptation to self-abnegation. 

3. The cult of the Virgin is "the rehabilitation of woman by the achievement of her 
defeat"; "The average Western male's ideal is a woman who ... intelligently resists but 
yields in the end"; "The traditional woman ... tries to conceal her dependence from 
herself, which is away of consenting to it." Examples are numerous. 

4. In reference libraries and in lecture halls — Beauvoir audited classes by Lacan and 
Levi-Strauss, among others — and in interviews with women of all backgrounds on two 

5. It was a source of her bad faith in fictionalizing the affair with Algren in her finest 
novel, The Mandarins . 


Translators 9 Note 

We have spent the past three years researching Le deuxieme sexe and 
translating it into English — into The Second Sex. It has been a 
daunting task and a splendid learning experience during which this 
monumental work entered our personal lives and changed the way we 
see the world. Questions naturally arose about the act of translating 
itself, about ourselves and our roles, and about our responsibilities to 
both Simone de Beauvoir and her readers. 

Translation has always been fraught with such questions, and 
different times have produced different conceptions of translating. 
Perhaps this is why, while great works of art seldom age, translations 
do. The job of the translator is not to simplify or readapt the text for a 
modern or foreign audience but to find the true voice of the original 
work, as it was written for its time and with its original intent. 
Seeking signification in another's words transports the translator into 
the mind of the writer. When the text is an opus like The Second Sex, 
whose impact on society was so decisive, the task of bringing into 
English the closest version possible of Simone de Beauvoir's voice, 
expression, and mind is greater still. 

This is not the first translation of Le deuxieme sexe into English, 
but it is the first complete one. H. M. Parshley translated it in 1953, 
but he abridged and edited passages and simplified some of the 
complex philosophical language. We have translated Le deuxieme sexe 
as it was written, unabridged and unsimplified, maintaining 
Beauvoir's philosophical language. The long and dense paragraphs 
that were changed in the 1953 translation to conform to more 
traditional styles of punctuation — or even eliminated — have now been 
translated as she wrote them, all within the confines of English. Long 
paragraphs (sometimes going on for pages) are a stylistic aspect of 
her writing that is essential, integral to the development of her 
arguments. Cutting her sentences, cutting her paragraphs, and using a 
more traditional and conventional punctuation do not render Simone 
de Beauvoir's voice. Beauvoir's style expresses her reasoning. Her 


prose has its own consistent grammar, and that grammar follows a 

We did not modernize the language Beauvoir used and had access 
to in 1949. This decision precluded the use of the word "gender," for 
example, as applied today. We also stayed close to Beauvoir's 
complicated syntax and punctuation as well as to certain usages of 
language that to us felt a bit awkward at first. One of the difficulties 
was her extensive use of the semicolon, a punctuation mark that has 
suffered setbacks over the past decades in English and French and has 
somewhat fallen into disuse. 

Nor did we modernize structures such as "If the subject attempts to 
assert himself, the other is nonetheless necessary for him." Today we 
would say, "If the subject attempts to assert her or himself ..." There 
are examples where the word "individual" clearly refers to a woman, 
but Beauvoir, because of French rules of grammar, uses the masculine 
pronoun. We therefore do the same in English. 

The reader will see some inconsistent punctuation and style, most 
evident in quotations. Indeed, while we were tempted to standardize it, 
we carried Beauvoir's style and formatting into English as much as 
possible. In addition, we used the same chapter headings and numbers 
that she did in the original two-volume Gallimard edition. We also 
made the decision to keep close to Beauvoir's tense usage, most 
noticeably regarding the French use of the present tense for the 
historical past. 

One particularly complex and compelling issue was how to 
translate la femme. In Le deuxieme sexe, the term has at least two 
meanings: "the woman" and "woman." At times it can also mean 
"women," depending on the context. "Woman" in English used alone 
without an article captures woman as an institution, a concept, 
femininity as determined and defined by society, culture, history. 
Thus in a French sentence such as Le probleme de la femme a 
toujours ete un probleme d'hommes, we have used "woman" without 
an article: "The problem of woman has always been a problem of 

Beauvoir occasionally — but rarely — uses femme without an article 
to signify woman as determined by society as just described. In such 
cases, of course, we do the same. The famous sentence, On ne nait 
pas femme: on le devient, reads, in our translation: "One is not born, 


but rather becomes, woman." The original translation by H. M. 
Parshley read, "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman." 

Another notable change we made was in the translation of la jeune 
fille. This is the title of an important chapter in Volume II dealing with 
the period in a female's life between childhood and adulthood. While 
it is often translated as "the young girl" (by Parshley and other 
translators of French works), we think it clearly means "girl." 

We have included all of Beauvoir's footnotes, and we have added 
notes of our own when we felt an explanation was necessary. Among 
other things, they indicate errors in Beauvoir's text and discrepancies 
such as erroneous dates. We corrected misspellings of names without 
noting them. Beauvoir sometimes puts into quotes passages that she is 
partially or completely paraphrasing. We generally left them that way. 
The reader will notice that titles of the French books she cites are 
given in French, followed by their translation in English. The 
translation is in italics if it is in a published English-language edition; 
it is in roman if it is our translation. We supply the sources of the 
English translations of the authors Beauvoir cites at the end of the 

We did not, however, facilitate the reading by explaining arcane 
references or difficult philosophical language. As an example of the 
former, in Part Three of Volume II, "Justifications," there is a 
reference to Cecile Sorel breaking the glass of a picture frame holding 
a caricature of her by an artist named Bib. The reference might have 
been as obscure in 1949 as it is today. 

Our notes do not make for an annotated version of the translation, 
yet we understand the value such a guide would have for both the 
teacher and the individual reading it on their own. We hope one can be 
written now that this more precise translation exists. 

These are but a few of the issues we dealt with. We had instructive 
discussions with generous experts about these points and listened to 
many (sometimes contradictory) opinions; but in the end, the final 
decisions as to how to treat the translation were ours. 

It is generally agreed that one of the most serious absences in the 
first translation was Simone de Beauvoir the philosopher. Much work 
has been done on reclaiming, valorizing, and expanding upon her role 
as philosopher since the 1953 publication, thanks to the scholarship of 
Margaret Simons, Eva Lundgren-Gothlin, Michele Le Doeuff, 


Elizabeth Fallaize, Emily Grosholz, Sonia Kruks, and Ingrid Galster, 
to mention only a few. We were keenly aware of the need to put the 
philosopher back into her text. To transpose her philosophical style 
and voice into English was the most crucial task we faced. 

The first English-language translation did not always recognize the 
philosophical terminology in The Second Sex. Take the crucial word 
"authentic," meaning "to be in good faith." As Toril Moi points out, 
Parshley changed it into "real, genuine, and true." The distinctive 
existentialist term pour-soi, usually translated as "for-itself ' (pour-soi 
referring to human consciousness), became "her true nature in itself." 
Thus, Parshley's "being-in-itself ' (en-soi, lacking human 
consciousness) is a reversal ofSimone de Beauvoir's meaning. 
Margaret Simons and Toril Moi have unearthed and brought to light 
many other examples, such as the use of "alienation," "alterity," 
"subject," and the verb "to posit," which are by now well 
documented. One particularly striking example is the title of Volume 
II; "L 'experience vecue" ("Lived Experience") was translated as 
"Woman's Life Today," weakening the philosophical tenor of the 

The Second Sex is a philosophical treatise and one of the most 
important books of the twentieth century, upon which much of the 
modern feminist movement was built. Beauvoir the philosopher is 
present right from the start of the book, building on the ideas of 
Hegel, Marx, Kant, Heidegger, Husserl, and others. She developed, 
shared, and appropriated these concepts alongside her equally brilliant 
contemporaries Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Levi-Strauss, who were 
redefining philosophy to fit the times. Before it was published, 
Beauvoir read Levi-Strauss 's Elementary Structures of Kinship and 
learned from and used those ideas in The Second Sex. Although the 
ideas and concepts are challenging, the book was immediately 
accepted by a general readership. Our goal in this translation has been 
to conform to the same ideal in English: to say what Simone de 
Beauvoir said as close to the way she said it, in a text both readable 
and challenging. 

Throughout our work, we were given the most generous help from 
the many experts we consulted. In every area Simone de Beauvoir 
delved into, whether in psychoanalysis, biology, anthropology, or 
philosophy, they helped us to produce the most authentic English 


version of her work. We thank them profusely. 

We owe a debt of gratitude to the indomitable Anne-Solange Noble 
of Editions Gallimard, who for years believed in this retranslation 
project. Anne-Solange begged, badgered, and persuaded ("I shall 
never surrender!") until she found the editor who was willing to take 
on the monumental task. That exceptional person is Ellah Allfrey of 
Jonathan Cape, a patient and superb editor who astutely worked with 
us step-by-step for three years, strongly supported by LuAnn Walther 
of Knopf. Anne-Solange introduced us to Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, 
Simone de Beauvoir's adopted daughter, and our relationship has 
been a very special one ever since that first lunch on the rue du Bac, 
where we four toasted the moment with "Vive le point-virgule! " 
("Long live the semicolon!") 

The feminist scholar Ann Shteir, our Douglass College friend and 
classmate, and now professor of humanities and women's studies at 
York University, Toronto, Canada, was always available to provide 
source material and to solve problematic issues, often many times a 
week. She, like we, felt that no task was too great to repay the debt 
women — and the world — owe to Simone de Beauvoir. Michael 
Mosher and Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz were extremely helpful with 
philosophical language and concepts. Gabrielle Spiegel and her 
generous colleagues took on the esoteric research required for the 
"History" chapters, notably the passages on the French Middle Ages, 
on which Gaby is a leading expert. James Lawler, the distinguished 
professor, merits our heartfelt gratitude for retranslating, specially for 
this edition, the Paul Claudel extracts with such elegance and grace. 
Our thanks to Beverley Bie Brahic for her translations of Francis 
Ponge, Michel Leiris, and Cecile Sauvage; Kenneth Haltman for 
Gaston Bachelard; Raymond MacKenzie for Francois Mauriac and 
others; Zack Rogow and Mary Ann Caws for Breton; Gillian Spraggs 
for Renee Vivien. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky allowed 
us the special privilege of using parts of their magnificent translation 
of War and Peace before the edition appeared in 2008; their views on 
translation were an inspiration to us. Donald Fanger helped us with 
Sophia Tolstoy's diaries. 

Many writers, translators, researchers, friends, colleagues, and 
strangers who became friends unfailingly contributed their expertise: 
Eliane Lecarme-Tabone, Mireille Perche, Claire Brisset, Mathilde 


Ferrer, David Tepfer, Marie- Victoire Louis, Virginia Larner, Nina de 
Voogd Fuller, Stephanie Baumann, Jane Couchman, Catherine 
Legault, Robert Lerner, Richard Sieburth, Sandra Bermann, Gerard 
Bonal, Lia Poorvu, Leila May-Landy, Karen Offen, Sybil Pollet, 
Janet Bodner, our copy editors, Beth Humphries and Ingrid Sterner, 
and our indexer, Cohen Carruth, Inc. 

Our husbands, Bill Chevallier and Dominique Borde, were among 
our staunchest and most reliable partners, living out the difficult 
passages with us, helping us overcome obstacles (and exhaustion), 
and also sharing the joy and elation of the life-changing discoveries 
the text held for us. 

Very special thanks go to our expert readers. Our official reader, 
Mary Beth Mader, authority par excellence in French and the 
philosophical language of Simone de Beauvoir, enriched our text with 
her insights and corrections; Margaret Simons, showing no end to her 
boundless generosity, "tested" our texts on her students and came 
back to us with meticulous perceptions and corrections; Marilyn 
Yalom, Susan Suleiman, and Elizabeth Fallaize, with all of the 
discernment for which they are renowned, explored chapters with a 
fine-tooth comb and gave us a heightened understanding of The 
Second Sex for which we will ever be grateful. 

And now it is for English readers to discover, learn, and live 
Simone de Beauvoir's message of freedom and independence. 



Facts and Myths 



I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman. The subject 
is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new. Enough ink has 
flowed over the quarrel about feminism; it is now almost over: let's 
not talk about it anymore. Yet it is still being talked about. And the 
volumes of idiocies churned out over this past century do not seem to 
have clarified the problem. Besides, is there a problem? And what is 
it? Are there even women? True, the theory of the eternal feminine 
still has its followers; they whisper, "Even in Russia, women are still 
very much women"; but other well-informed people — and also at 
times those same ones — lament, "Woman is losing herself, woman is 
lost." It is hard to know any longer if women still exist, if they will 
always exist, if there should be women at all, what place they hold in 
this world, what place they should hold. "Where are the women?" 
asked a short-lived magazine recently. 1 But first, what is a woman? 
"Tota mulier in utero: she is a womb," some say. Yet speaking of 
certain women, the experts proclaim, "They are not women," even 
though they have a uterus like the others. Everyone agrees there are 
females in the human species; today, as in the past, they make up 
about half of humanity; and yet we are told that "femininity is in 
jeopardy"; we are urged, "Be women, stay women, become women." 
So not every female human being is necessarily a woman; she must 
take part in this mysterious and endangered reality known as 
femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries? Is it enshrined in a 
Platonic heaven? Is a frilly petticoat enough to bring it down to earth? 
Although some women zealously strive to embody it, the model has 
never been patented. It is typically described in vague and shimmering 
terms borrowed from a clairvoyant's vocabulary. In Saint Thomas's 
time it was an essence defined with as much certainty as the sedative 
quality of a poppy. But conceptualism has lost ground: biological and 
social sciences no longer believe there are immutably determined 
entities that define given characteristics like those of the woman, the 
Jew, or the black; science considers characteristics as secondary 


reactions to a situation. If there is no such thing today as femininity, it 
is because there never was. Does the word "woman," then, have no 
content? It is what advocates of Enlightenment philosophy, 
rationalism, or nominalism vigorously assert: women are, among 
human beings, merely those who are arbitrarily designated by the 
word "woman"; American women in particular are inclined to think 
that woman as such no longer exists. If some backward individual 
still takes herself for a woman, her friends advise her to undergo 
psychoanalysis to get rid of this obsession. Referring to a book — a 
very irritating one at that — Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, Dorothy 
Parker wrote: "I cannot be fair about books that treat women as 
women. My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, whoever we 
are, should be considered as human beings." But nominalism is a 
doctrine that falls a bit short; and it is easy for antifeminists to show 
that women are not men. Certainly woman like man is a human being; 
but such an assertion is abstract; the fact is that every concrete human 
being is always uniquely situated. To reject the notions of the eternal 
feminine, the black soul, or the Jewish character is not to deny that 
there are today Jews, blacks, or women: this denial is not a liberation 
for those concerned but an inauthentic flight. Clearly, no woman can 
claim without bad faith to be situated beyond her sex. A few years 
ago, a well-known woman writer refused to have her portrait appear 
in a series of photographs devoted specifically to women writers. She 
wanted to be included in the men's category; but to get this privilege, 
she used her husband's influence. Women who assert they are men 
still claim masculine consideration and respect. I also remember a 
young Trotskyite standing on a platform during a stormy meeting, 
about to come to blows in spite of her obvious fragility. She was 
denying her feminine frailty; but it was for the love of a militant man 
she wanted to be equal to. The defiant position that American women 
occupy proves they are haunted by the feeling of their own femininity. 
And the truth is that anyone can clearly see that humanity is split into 
two categories of individuals with manifestly different clothes, faces, 
bodies, smiles, movements, interests, and occupations; these 
differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they are destined to 
disappear. What is certain is that for the moment they exist in a 
strikingly obvious way. 

If the female function is not enough to define woman, and if we 


also reject the explanation of the "eternal feminine," but if we accept, 
even temporarily, that there are women on the earth, we then have to 
ask: What is a woman? 

Merely stating the problem suggests an immediate answer to me. It 
is significant that I pose it. It would never occur to a man to write a 
book on the singular situation of males in humanity. 2 If I want to 
define myself, I first have to say, "I am a woman"; all other assertions 
will arise from this basic truth. A man never begins by positing 
himself as an individual of a certain sex: that he is a man is obvious. 
The categories masculine and feminine appear as symmetrical in a 
formal way on town hall records or identification papers. The relation 
of the two sexes is not that of two electrical poles: the man represents 
both the positive and the neuter to such an extent that in French 
hommes designates human beings, the particular meaning of the word 
vir being assimilated into the general meaning of the word "homo." 
Woman is the negative, to such a point that any determination is 
imputed to her as a limitation, without reciprocity. I used to get 
annoyed in abstract discussions to hear men tell me: "You think such 
and such a thing because you're a woman." But I know my only 
defense is to answer, "I think it because it is true," thereby eliminating 
my subjectivity; it was out of the question to answer, "And you think 
the contrary because you are a man," because it is understood that 
being a man is not a particularity; a man is in his right by virtue of 
being man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. In fact, just as for the 
ancients there was an absolute vertical that defined the oblique, there 
is an absolute human type that is masculine. Woman has ovaries and a 
uterus; such are the particular conditions that lock her in her 
subjectivity; some even say she thinks with her hormones. Man 
vainly forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles. 
He grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he 
believes he apprehends in all objectivity, whereas he considers 
woman's body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that 
particularizes it. "The female is female by virtue of a certain lack of 
qualities," Aristotle said. "We should regard women's nature as 
suffering from natural defectiveness." And Saint Thomas in his turn 
decreed that woman was an "incomplete man," an "incidental" being. 
This is what the Genesis story symbolizes, where Eve appears as if 
drawn from Adam's "supernumerary" bone, in Bossuet's words. 


Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in 
relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being. 
"Woman, the relative being," writes Michelet. Thus Monsieur Benda 
declares inLe rapport d 'Uriel (Uriel's Report): "A man's body has 
meaning by itself, disregarding the body of the woman, whereas the 
woman's body seems devoid of meaning without reference to the 
male. Man thinks himself without woman. Woman does not think 
herself without man." And she is nothing other than what man 
decides; she is thus called "the sex," meaning that the male sees her 
essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex, so she is it in the 
absolute. She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while 
he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the 
essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other. 3 

The category of Other is as original as consciousness itself. The 
duality between Self and Other can be found in the most primitive 
societies, in the most ancient mythologies; this division did not always 
fall into the category of the division of the sexes, it was not based on 
any empirical given: this comes out in works like Granet's on Chinese 
thought, and Dumezil's on India and Rome. In couples such as 
Varuna — Mitra, Uranus — Zeus, Sun — Moon, Day — Night, no 
feminine element is involved at the outset; neither in Good — Evil, 
auspicious and inauspicious, left and right, God and Lucifer; alterity is 
the fundamental category of human thought. No group ever defines 
itself as One without immediately setting up the Other opposite itself. 
It only takes three travelers brought together by chance in the same 
train compartment for the rest of the travelers to become vaguely 
hostile "others." Village people view anyone not belonging to the 
village as suspicious "others." For the native of a country inhabitants 
of other countries are viewed as "foreigners"; Jews are the "others" 
for anti-Semites, blacks for racist Americans, indigenous people for 
colonists, proletarians for the propertied classes. After studying the 
diverse forms of primitive society in depth, Levi-Strauss could 
conclude: "The passage from the state of Nature to the state of Culture 
is defined by man's ability to think biological relations as systems of 
oppositions; duality, alternation, opposition, and symmetry, whether 
occurring in defined or less clear form, are not so much phenomena to 
explain as fundamental and immediate givens of social reality." 4 
These phenomena could not be understood if human reality were 


solely aMitsein based on solidarity and friendship. On the contrary, 
they become clear if, following Hegel, a fundamental hostility to any 
other consciousness is found in consciousness itself; the subject 
posits itself only in opposition; it asserts itself as the essential and sets 
up the other as inessential, as the object. 

But the other consciousness has an opposing reciprocal claim: 
traveling, a local is shocked to realize that in neighboring countries 
locals view him as a foreigner; between villages, clans, nations, and 
classes there are wars, potlatches, agreements, treaties, and struggles 
that remove the absolute meaning from the idea of the Other and bring 
out its relativity; whether one likes it or not, individuals and groups 
have no choice but to recognize the reciprocity of their relation. How 
is it, then, that between the sexes this reciprocity has not been put 
forward, that one of the terms has been asserted as the only essential 
one, denying any relativity in regard to its correlative, defining the 
latter as pure alterity? Why do women not contest male sovereignty? 
No subject posits itself spontaneously and at once as the inessential 
from the outset; it is not the Other who, defining itself as Other, 
defines the One; the Other is posited as Other by the One positing 
itself as One. But in order for the Other not to turn into the One, the 
Other has to submit to this foreign point of view. Where does this 
submission in woman come from? 

There are other cases where, for a shorter or longer time, one 
category has managed to dominate another absolutely. It is often 
numerical inequality that confers this privilege: the majority imposes 
its law on or persecutes the minority. But women are not a minority 
like American blacks, or like Jews: there are as many women as men 
on the earth. Often, the two opposing groups concerned were once 
independent of each other; either they were not aware of each other in 
the past, or they accepted each other's autonomy; and some historical 
event subordinated the weaker to the stronger: the Jewish Diaspora, 
slavery in America, and the colonial conquests are facts with dates. In 
these cases, for the oppressed there was a before: they share a past, a 
tradition, sometimes a religion, or a culture. In this sense, the parallel 
Bebel draws between women and the proletariat would be the best 
founded: proletarians are not a numerical minority either, and yet they 
have never formed a separate group. However, not one event but a 
whole historical development explains their existence as a class and 


accounts for the distribution of these individuals in this class. There 
have not always been proletarians: there have always been women; 
they are women by their physiological structure; as far back as history 
can be traced, they have always been subordinate to men; their 
dependence is not the consequence of an event or a becoming, it did 
not happen. Alterity here appears to be an absolute, partly because it 
falls outside the accidental nature of historical fact. A situation created 
over time can come undone at another time — blacks in Haiti for one 
are a good example; on the contrary, a natural condition seems to defy 
change. In truth, nature is no more an immutable given than is 
historical reality. If woman discovers herself as the inessential and 
never turns into the essential, it is because she does not bring about 
this transformation herself. Proletarians say "we." So do blacks. 
Positing themselves as subjects, they thus transform the bourgeois or 
whites into "others." Women — except in certain abstract gatherings 
such as conferences — do not use "we"; men say "women," and 
women adopt this word to refer to themselves; but they do not posit 
themselves authentically as Subjects. The proletarians made the 
revolution in Russia, the blacks in Haiti, the Indo-Chinese are fighting 
in Indochina. Women's actions have never been more than symbolic 
agitation; they have won only what men have been willing to concede 
to them; they have taken nothing; they have received. 5 It is that they 
lack the concrete means to organize themselves into a unit that could 
posit itself in opposition. They have no past, no history, no religion of 
their own; and unlike the proletariat, they have no solidarity of labor 
or interests; they even lack their own space that makes communities of 
American blacks, the Jews in ghettos, or the workers in Saint-Denis 
or Renault factories. They live dispersed among men, tied by homes, 
work, economic interests, and social conditions to certain men — 
fathers or husbands — more closely than to other women. As 
bourgeois women, they are in solidarity with bourgeois men and not 
with women proletarians; as white women, they are in solidarity with 
white men and not with black women. The proletariat could plan to 
massacre the whole ruling class; a fanatic Jew or black could dream of 
seizing the secret of the atomic bomb and turning all of humanity 
entirely Jewish or entirely black: but a woman could not even dream 
of exterminating males. The tie that binds her to her oppressors is 
unlike any other. The division of the sexes is a biological given, not a 


moment in human history. Their opposition took shape within an 
original Mitsein, and she has not broken it. The couple is a 
fundamental unit with the two halves riveted to each other: cleavage of 
society by sex is not possible. This is the fundamental characteristic of 
woman: she is the Other at the heart of a whole whose two 
components are necessary to each other. 

One might think that this reciprocity would have facilitated her 
liberation; when Hercules spins wool at Omphale's feet, his desire 
enchains him. Why was Omphale unable to acquire long-lasting 
power? Medea, in revenge against Jason, kills her children: this brutal 
legend suggests that the bond attaching the woman to her child could 
have given her a formidable upper hand. In Lysistrata, Aristophanes 
lightheartedly imagined a group of women who, uniting together for 
the social good, tried to take advantage of men's need for them: but it 
is only a comedy. The legend that claims that the ravished Sabine 
women resisted their ravishers with obstinate sterility also recounts 
that by whipping them with leather straps, the men magically won 
them over into submission. Biological need — sexual desire and desire 
for posterity — which makes the male dependent on the female, has not 
liberated women socially. Master and slave are also linked by a 
reciprocal economic need that does not free the slave. That is, in the 
master-slave relation, the master does not posit the need he has for the 
other; he holds the power to satisfy this need and does not mediate it; 
the slave, on the other hand, out of dependence, hope, or fear, 
internalizes his need for the master; however equally compelling the 
need may be to them both, it always plays in favor of the oppressor 
over the oppressed: this explains the slow pace of working-class 
liberation, for example. Now, woman has always been, if not man's 
slave, at least his vassal; the two sexes have never divided the world 
up equally; and still today, even though her condition is changing, 
woman is heavily handicapped. In no country is her legal status 
identical to man's, and often it puts her at a considerable disadvantage. 
Even when her rights are recognized abstractly, long-standing habit 
keeps them from being concretely manifested in customs. 
Economically, men and women almost form two castes; all things 
being equal, the former have better jobs, higher wages, and greater 
chances to succeed than their new female competitors; they occupy 
many more places in industry, in politics, and so forth, and they hold 


the most important positions. In addition to their concrete power, they 
are invested with a prestige whose tradition is reinforced by the 
child's whole education: the present incorporates the past, and in the 
past all history was made by males. At the moment that women are 
beginning to share in the making of the world, this world still belongs 
to men: men have no doubt about this, and women barely doubt it. 
Refusing to be the Other, refusing complicity with man, would mean 
renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the superior caste 
confers on them. Lord-man will materially protect liege-woman and 
will be in charge of justifying her existence: along with the economic 
risk, she eludes the metaphysical risk of a freedom that must invent its 
goals without help. Indeed, beside every individual's claim to assert 
himself as subject — an ethical claim — lies the temptation to flee 
freedom and to make himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path 
because the individual, passive, alienated, and lost, is prey to a foreign 
will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth. But it is an 
easy path: the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence 
are thus avoided. The man who sets the woman up as an Other will 
thus find in her a deep complicity. Hence woman makes no claim for 
herself as subject because she lacks the concrete means, because she 
senses the necessary link connecting her to man without positing its 
reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from her role as 

But a question immediately arises: How did this whole story begin? 
It is understandable that the duality of the sexes, like all duality, be 
expressed in conflict. It is understandable that if one of the two 
succeeded in imposing its superiority, it had to establish itself as 
absolute. It remains to be explained how it was that man won at the 
outset. It seems possible that women might have carried off the 
victory, or that the battle might never be resolved. Why is it that this 
world has always belonged to men and that only today things are 
beginning to change? Is this change a good thing? Will it bring about 
an equal sharing of the world between men and women or not? 

These questions are far from new; they have already had many 
answers; but the very fact that woman is Other challenges all the 
justifications that men have ever given: these were only too clearly 
dictated by their own interest. "Everything that men have written 
about women should be viewed with suspicion, because they are both 


judge and party," wrote Poulain de la Barre, a little-known 
seventeenth-century feminist. Males have always and everywhere 
paraded their satisfaction of feeling they are kings of creation. 
"Blessed be the Lord our God, and the Lord of all worlds that has not 
made me a woman," Jews say in their morning prayers; meanwhile, 
their wives resignedly murmur: "Blessed be the Lord for creating me 
according to his will." Among the blessings Plato thanked the gods 
for was, first, being born free and not a slave and, second, a man and 
not a woman. But males could not have enjoyed this privilege so fully 
had they not considered it as founded in the absolute and in eternity: 
they sought to make the fact of their supremacy a right. "Those who 
made and compiled the laws, being men, favored their own sex, and 
the jurisconsults have turned the laws into principles," Poulain de la 
Barre continues. Lawmakers, priests, philosophers, writers, and 
scholars have gone to great lengths to prove that women's 
subordinate condition was willed in heaven and profitable on earth. 
Religions forged by men reflect this will for domination: they found 
ammunition in the legends of Eve and Pandora. They have put 
philosophy and theology in their service, as seen in the previously 
cited words of Aristotle and Saint Thomas. Since ancient times, 
satirists and moralists have delighted in depicting women's 
weaknesses. The violent indictments brought against them all through 
French literature are well-known: Montherlant, with less verve, picks 
up the tradition from Jean de Meung. This hostility seems sometimes 
founded but is often gratuitous; in truth, it covers up a more or less 
skillfully camouflaged will to self-justification. "It is much easier to 
accuse one sex than to excuse the other," says Montaigne. In certain 
cases, the process is transparent. It is striking, for example, that the 
Roman code limiting a wife's rights invokes "the imbecility and 
fragility of the sex" just when a weakening family structure makes her 
a threat to male heirs. It is striking that in the sixteenth century, to 
keep a married woman under wardship, the authority of Saint 
Augustine affirming "the wife is an animal neither reliable nor stable" 
is called on, whereas the unmarried woman is recognized as capable 
of managing her own affairs. Montaigne well understood the 
arbitrariness and injustice of the lot assigned to women: "Women are 
not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been 
introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made 


these without them. There is a natural plotting and scheming between 
them and us." But he does not go so far as to champion their cause. It 
is only in the eighteenth century that deeply democratic men begin to 
consider the issue objectively. Diderot, for one, tries to prove that, like 
man, woman is a human being. A bit later, John Stuart Mill ardently 
defends women. But these philosophers are exceptional in their 
impartiality. In the nineteenth century the feminist quarrel once again 
becomes a partisan quarrel; one of the consequences of the Industrial 
Revolution is that women enter the labor force: at that point, women's 
demands leave the realm of the theoretical and find economic grounds; 
their adversaries become all the more aggressive; even though landed 
property is partially discredited, the bourgeoisie clings to the old 
values where family solidity guarantees private property: it insists all 
the more fiercely that woman's place be in the home as her 
emancipation becomes a real threat; even within the working class, 
men tried to thwart women's liberation because women were 
becoming dangerous competitors — especially as women were used to 
working for low salaries. 6 To prove women's inferiority, 
antifeminists began to draw not only, as before, on religion, 
philosophy, and theology but also on science: biology, experimental 
psychology, and so forth. At most they were willing to grant 
"separate but equal status" to the other sex.* That winning formula is 
most significant: it is exactly that formula the Jim Crow laws put into 
practice with regard to black Americans; this so-called egalitarian 
segregation served only to introduce the most extreme forms of 
discrimination. This convergence is in no way pure chance: whether it 
is race, caste, class, or sex reduced to an inferior condition, the 
justification process is the same. "The eternal feminine" corresponds 
to "the black soul" or "the Jewish character." However, the Jewish 
problem on the whole is very different from the two others: for the 
anti-Semite, the Jew is more an enemy than an inferior, and no place 
on this earth is recognized as his own; it would be preferable to see 
him annihilated. But there are deep analogies between the situations of 
women and blacks: both are liberated today from the same 
paternalism, and the former master caste wants to keep them "in their 
place," that is, the place chosen for them; in both cases, they praise, 
more or less sincerely, the virtues of the "good black," the carefree, 
childlike, merry soul of the resigned black, and the woman who is a 


"true woman" — frivolous, infantile, irresponsible, the woman 
subjugated to man. In both cases, the ruling caste bases its argument 
on the state of affairs it created itself. The familiar line from George 
Bernard Shaw sums it up: The white American relegates the black to 
the rank of shoe-shine boy, and then concludes that blacks are only 
good for shining shoes. The same vicious circle can be found in all 
analogous circumstances: when an individual or a group of 
individuals is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is that he or 
they are inferior. But the scope of the verb to be must be understood; 
bad faith means giving it a substantive value, when in fact it has the 
sense of the Hegelian dynamic: to be is to have become, to have been 
made as one manifests oneself. Yes, women in general are today 
inferior to men; that is, their situation provides them with fewer 
possibilities: the question is whether this state of affairs must be 

Many men wish it would be: not all men have yet laid down their 
arms. The conservative bourgeoisie continues to view women's 
liberation as a danger threatening their morality and their interests. 
Some men feel threatened by women's competition. In Hebdo-Latin 
the other day, a student declared: "Every woman student who takes a 
position as a doctor or lawyer is stealing a place from us." That 
student never questioned his rights over this world. Economic 
interests are not the only ones in play. One of the benefits that 
oppression secures for the oppressor is that the humblest among them 
feels superior: in the United States a "poor white" from the South can 
console himself for not being a "dirty nigger"; and more prosperous 
whites cleverly exploit this pride. Likewise, the most mediocre of 
males believes himself a demigod next to women. It was easier for M. 
de Montherlant to think himself a hero in front of women 
(handpicked, by the way) than to act the man among men, a role that 
many women assumed better than he did. Thus, in one of his articles 
inLe Figaro Litteraire in September 1948, M. Claude Mauriac — 
whom everyone admires for his powerful originality — could 7 write 
about women: "We listen in a tone [sic!] of polite indifference ... to 
the most brilliant one among them, knowing that her intelligence, in a 
more or less dazzling way, reflects ideas that come from us." Clearly 
his female interlocutor does not reflect M. Mauriac's own ideas, since 
he is known not to have any; that she reflects ideas originating with 


men is possible: among males themselves, more than one of them 
takes as his own opinions he did not invent; one might wonder if it 
would not be in M. Claude Mauriac's interest to converse with a good 
reflection of Descartes, Marx, or Gide rather than with himself; what 
is remarkable is that with the ambiguous "we," he identifies with Saint 
Paul, Hegel, Lenin, and Nietzsche, and from their heights he looks 
down on the herd of women who dare to speak to him on an equal 
footing; frankly, I know of more than one woman who would not put 
up with M. Mauriac's "tone of polite indifference." 

I have stressed this example because of its disarming masculine 
naivete. Men profit in many other more subtle ways from woman's 
alterity. For all those suffering from an inferiority complex, this is a 
miraculous liniment; no one is more arrogant toward women, more 
aggressive or more disdainful, than a man anxious about his own 
virility. Those who are not threatened by their fellow men are far more 
likely to recognize woman as a counterpart; but even for them the 
myth of the Woman, of the Other, remains precious for many 
reasons; 8 they can hardly be blamed for not wanting to lightheartedly 
sacrifice all the benefits they derive from the myth: they know what 
they lose by relinquishing the woman of their dreams, but they do not 
know what the woman of tomorrow will bring them. It takes great 
abnegation to refuse to posit oneself as unique and absolute Subject. 
Besides, the vast majority of men do not explicitly make this position 
their own. They do not posit woman as inferior: they are too imbued 
today with the democratic ideal not to recognize all human beings as 
equals. Within the family, the male child and then the young man sees 
the woman as having the same social dignity as the adult male; 
afterward, he experiences in desire and love the resistance and 
independence of the desired and loved woman; married, he respects in 
his wife the spouse and the mother, and in the concrete experience of 
married life she affirms herself opposite him as a freedom. He can 
thus convince himself that there is no longer a social hierarchy 
between the sexes and that on the whole, in spite of their differences, 
woman is an equal. As he nevertheless recognizes some points of 
inferiority — professional incapacity being the predominant one — he 
attributes them to nature. When he has an attitude of benevolence and 
partnership toward a woman, he applies the principle of abstract 
equality; and he does not posit the concrete inequality he recognizes. 


But as soon as he clashes with her, the situation is reversed. He will 
apply the concrete inequality theme and will even allow himself to 
disavow abstract equality. 9 This is how many men affirm, with quasi 
good faith, that women are equal to men and have no demands to 
make, and at the same time that women will never be equal to men 
and that their demands are in vain. It is difficult for men to measure 
the enormous extent of social discrimination that seems insignificant 
from the outside and whose moral and intellectual repercussions are 
so deep in woman that they appear to spring from an original 
nature. 10 The man most sympathetic to women never knows her 
concrete situation fully. So there is no good reason to believe men 
when they try to defend privileges whose scope they cannot even 
fathom. We will not let ourselves be intimidated by the number and 
violence of attacks against women; nor be fooled by the self-serving 
praise showered on the "real woman"; nor be won over by men's 
enthusiasm for her destiny, a destiny they would not for the world 
want to share. 

We must not, however, be any less mistrustful of feminists' 
arguments: very often their attempt to polemicize robs them of all 
value. If the "question of women" is so trivial, it is because masculine 
arrogance turned it into a "quarrel"; when people quarrel, they no 
longer reason well. What people have endlessly sought to prove is 
that woman is superior, inferior, or equal to man: created after Adam, 
she is obviously a secondary being, some say; on the contrary, say 
others, Adam was only a rough draft, and God perfected the human 
being when he created Eve; her brain is smaller, but relatively bigger; 
Christ was made man, but perhaps out of humility. Every argument 
has its opposite, and both are often misleading. To see clearly, one 
needs to get out of these ruts; these vague notions of superiority, 
inferiority, and equality that have distorted all discussions must be 
discarded in order to start anew. 

But how, then, will we ask the question? And in the first place, 
who are we to ask it? Men are judge and party: so are women. Can an 
angel be found? In fact, an angel would be ill qualified to speak, 
would not understand all the givens of the problem; as for the 
hermaphrodite, it is a case of its own: it is not both a man and a 
woman, but neither man nor woman. I think certain women are still 
best suited to elucidate the situation of women. It is a sophism to 


claim that Epimenides should be enclosed within the concept of 
Cretan and all Cretans within the concept of liar: it is not a mysterious 
essence that dictates good or bad faith to men and women; it is their 
situation that disposes them to seek the truth to a greater or lesser 
extent. Many women today, fortunate to have had all the privileges of 
the human being restored to them, can afford the luxury of 
impartiality: we even feel the necessity of it. We are no longer like our 
militant predecessors; we have more or less won the game; in the 
latest discussions on women's status, the UN has not ceased to 
imperiously demand equality of the sexes, and indeed many of us 
have never felt our femaleness to be a difficulty or an obstacle; many 
other problems seem more essential than those that concern us 
uniquely: this very detachment makes it possible to hope our attitude 
will be objective. Yet we know the feminine world more intimately 
than men do because our roots are in it; we grasp more immediately 
what the fact of being female means for a human being, and we care 
more about knowing it. I said that there are more essential problems; 
but this one still has a certain importance from our point of view: 
How will the fact of being women have affected our lives? What 
precise opportunities have been given us, and which ones have been 
denied? What destiny awaits our younger sisters, and in which 
direction should we point them? It is striking that most feminine 
literature is driven today by an attempt at lucidity more than by a will 
to make demands; coming out of an era of muddled controversy, this 
book is one attempt among others to take stock of the current state. 

But it is no doubt impossible to approach any human problem 
without partiality: even the way of asking the questions, of adopting 
perspectives, presupposes hierarchies of interests; all characteristics 
comprise values; every so-called objective description is set against an 
ethical background. Instead of trying to conceal those principles that 
are more or less explicitly implied, we would be better off stating 
them from the start; then it would not be necessary to specify on each 
page the meaning given to the words "superior," "inferior," "better," 
"worse," "progress," "regression," and so on. If we examine some of 
the books on women, we see that one of the most frequently held 
points of view is that of public good or general interest: in reality, this 
is taken to mean the interest of society as each one wishes to maintain 
or establish it. In our opinion, there is no public good other than one 


that assures the citizens' private good; we judge institutions from the 
point of view of the concrete opportunities they give to individuals. 
But neither do we confuse the idea of private interest with happiness: 
that is another frequently encountered point of view; are women in a 
harem not happier than a woman voter? Is a housewife not happier 
than a woman worker? We cannot really know what the word 
"happiness" means, and still less what authentic values it covers; there 
is no way to measure the happiness of others, and it is always easy to 
call a situation that one would like to impose on others happy: in 
particular, we declare happy those condemned to stagnation, under the 
pretext that happiness is immobility. This is a notion, then, we will not 
refer to. The perspective we have adopted is one of existentialist 
morality. Every subject posits itself as a transcendence concretely, 
through projects; it accomplishes its freedom only by perpetual 
surpassing toward other freedoms; there is no other justification for 
present existence than its expansion toward an indefinitely open 
future. Every time transcendence lapses into immanence, there is 
degradation of existence into "in-itself," of freedom into facticity; this 
fall is a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if this fall is inflicted 
on the subject, it takes the form of frustration and oppression; in both 
cases it is an absolute evil. Every individual concerned with justifying 
his existence experiences his existence as an indefinite need to 
transcend himself. But what singularly defines the situation of woman 
is that being, like all humans, an autonomous freedom, she discovers 
and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself 
as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her 
to immanence, since her transcendence will be forever transcended by 
another essential and sovereign consciousness. Woman's drama lies 
in this conflict between the fundamental claim of every subject, which 
always posits itself as essential, and the demands of a situation that 
constitutes her as inessential. How, in the feminine condition, can a 
human being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? Which 
ones lead to dead ends? How can she find independence within 
dependence? What circumstances limit women's freedom and can she 
overcome them? These are the fundamental questions we would like 
to elucidate. This means that in focusing on the individual's 
possibilities, we will define these possibilities not in terms of 
happiness but in terms of freedom. 


Clearly this problem would have no meaning if we thought that a 
physiological, psychological, or economic destiny weighed on 
woman. So we will begin by discussing woman from a biological, 
psychoanalytical, and historical materialist point of view. We will then 
attempt to positively demonstrate how "feminine reality" has been 
constituted, why woman has been defined as Other, and what the 
consequences have been from men's point of view. Then we will 
describe the world from the woman's point of view such as it is 
offered to her, 1 1 and we will see the difficulties women are up against 
just when, trying to escape the sphere they have been assigned until 
now, they seek to be part of the human Mitsein. 

1 . Out of print today, titled Franchise. 

2. The Kinsey Report, for example, confines itself to defining the sexual characteristics 
of the American man, which is completely different. 

3. This idea has been expressed in its most explicit form by E. Levinas in his essay Le 
temps et I 'autre (Time and the Other). He expresses it like this: "Is there not a situation 
where alterity would be borne by a being in a positive sense, as essence? What is the 
alterity that does not purely and simply enter into the opposition of two species of the 
same genus? I think that the absolutely contrary contrary, whose contrariety is in no 
way affected by the relationship that can be established between it and its correlative, 
the contrariety that permits its terms to remain absolutely other, is the feminine. Sex is 
not some specific difference ... Neither is the difference between the sexes a 
contradiction ... Neither is the difference between the sexes the duality of two 
complementary terms, for two complementary terms presuppose a preexisting 
whole ... [AJlterity is accomplished in the feminine. The term is on the same level as, 
but in meaning opposed to, consciousness." I suppose Mr. Levinas is not forgetting 
that woman also is consciousness for herself. But it is striking that he deliberately 
adopts a man's point of view, disregarding the reciprocity of the subject and the 
object. When he writes that woman is mystery, he assumes that she is mystery for man. 
So this apparently objective description is in fact an affirmation of masculine 

4. See Claude Levi-Strauss,Z,as structures elementaires de la parente (The Elementary 
Structures of Kinship). I thank Claude Levi-Strauss for sharing the proofs of his 
thesis, which I drewon heavily, particularly in the second part, pp. 76-89. 

*Mitsein can be translated as "being with." The French termrealite humaine (human 
reality) has been problematically used to translate Heidegger's Dasein. — TRANS. 


5. See second part, this page. 

6. See Part Two, this page to this page 

* "L'egalite dans la difference" in the French text. Literal translation: "different but 
equal." — TRANS. 

7. At least he thought he could. 

8. The article by Michel Carrouges on this theme in Cahiers du Sud, no. 292, is 
significant. He writes with indignation: "If only there were no feminine myth but only 
bands of cooks, matrons, prostitutes, and bluestockings with functions of pleasure or 
utility!" So, according to him, woman has no existence for herself; he only takes into 
account her function in the male world. Her finality is in man; in fact, it is possible to 
prefer her poetic "function" to all others. The exact question is why she should be 
defined in relation to the man. 

9. For example, man declares that he does not find his wife in any way diminished just 
because she does not have a profession: work in the home is just as noble and so on. 
Yet at the first argument he remonstrates, "You wouldn't be able to earn a living 
without me." 

10. Describing this very process will be the object of Volume II of this study. 

1 1 . This will be the subject of a second volume. 






Biological Data 

Woman? Very simple, say those who like simple answers: She is a 
womb, an ovary; she is a female: this word is enough to define her. 
From a man's mouth, the epithet "female" sounds like an insult; but 
he, not ashamed of his animality, is proud to hear: "He's a male!" The 
term "female" is pejorative not because it roots woman in nature but 
because it confines her in her sex, and if this sex, even in an innocent 
animal, seems despicable and an enemy to man, it is obviously 
because of the disquieting hostility woman triggers in him. 
Nevertheless, he wants to find a justification in biology for this 
feeling. The word "female" evokes a saraband of images: an 
enormous round egg snatching and castrating the agile sperm; 
monstrous and stuffed, the queen termite reigning over the servile 
males; the praying mantis and the spider, gorged on love, crushing 
their partners and gobbling them up; the dog in heat running through 
back alleys, leaving perverse smells in her wake; the monkey showing 
herself off brazenly, sneaking away with flirtatious hypocrisy. And 
the most splendid wildcats, the tigress, lioness, and panther, lie down 
slavishly under the male's imperial embrace, inert, impatient, shrewd, 
stupid, insensitive, lewd, fierce, and humiliated. Man projects all 
females at once onto woman. And the fact is that she is a female. But 
if one wants to stop thinking in commonplaces, two questions arise. 
What does the female represent in the animal kingdom? And what 
unique kind of female is realized in woman? 

Males and females are two types of individuals who are differentiated 
within one species for the purposes of reproduction; they can be 
defined only correlatively. But it has to be pointed out first that the 
very meaning of division of the species into two sexes is not clear. 

It does not occur universally in nature. In one-celled animals, 
infusorians, amoebas, bacilli, and so on, multiplication is 


fundamentally distinct from sexuality, with cells dividing and 
subdividing individually. For some metazoans, reproduction occurs 
by schizogenesis, that is dividing the individual whose origin is also 
asexual, or by blastogenesis, that is dividing the individual itself 
produced by a sexual phenomenon: the phenomena of budding or 
segmentation observed in freshwater hydras, coelenterates, sponges, 
worms, and tunicates are well-known examples. In parthenogenesis, 
the virgin egg develops in embryonic form without male intervention. 
The male plays no role or only a secondary one: unfertilized honeybee 
eggs subdivide and produce drones; in the case of aphids, males are 
absent for a number of generations, and the unfertilized eggs produce 
females. Parthenogenesis in the sea urchin, the starfish, and the toad 
has been artificially reproduced. However, sometimes in the protozoa, 
two cells can merge, forming what is called a zygote; fertilization is 
necessary for honeybee eggs to engender females and aphid eggs, 
males. Some biologists have thus concluded that even in species 
capable of perpetuating themselves unilaterally, the renewal of genetic 
diversity through mixing of parental chromosomes would benefit the 
line's rejuvenation and vigor; in this view, then, in the more complex 
forms of life, sexuality is an indispensable function; only elementary 
organisms could multiply without sexes, and even so they would 
exhaust their vitality. But today this hypothesis is most inexact; 
observations have proved that asexual multiplication can occur 
indefinitely without any noticeable degeneration; this is particularly 
striking in bacilli; more and more — and bolder and even bolder — 
parthenogenetic experiments have been carried out, and in many 
species the male seems radically useless. Moreover, even if the value 
of intercellular exchange could be demonstrated, it would be a purely 
ungrounded fact. Biology attests to sexual differentiation, but even if 
biology were imbued with finalism, the differentiation of sexes could 
not be deduced from cellular structure, laws of cellular multiplication, 
or any elementary phenomenon. 

The existence of heterogenetic gametes alone does not necessarily 
mean there are two distinct sexes; 1 the differentiation of reproductive 
cells often does not bring about a division of the species into two 
types: both can belong to the same individual. This is true of 
hermaphroditic species, so common in plants, and also in many 
invertebrates, among which are the annulates and mo Husks. 


Reproduction takes place either by self-fertilization or by cross- 
fertilization. Some biologists use this fact to claim the justification of 
the established order. They consider gonochorism — that is, the system 
in which the different gonads 2 belong to distinct individuals — as an 
improvement on hermaphroditism, realized by evolution; others, by 
contrast, consider gonochorism primitive: for those biologists, 
hermaphroditism would thus be its degeneration. In any case, these 
notions of superiority of one system over another involve highly 
contestable theories concerning evolution. All that can be affirmed 
with certainty is that these two means of reproduction coexist in 
nature, that they both perpetuate species, and that the heterogeneity of 
both gametes and gonad-producing organisms seems to be accidental. 
The differentiation of individuals into males and females thus occurs 
as an irreducible and contingent fact. 

Most philosophies have taken sexual differentiation for granted 
without attempting to explain it. The Platonic myth has it that in the 
beginning there were men, women, and androgynes; each individual 
had a double face, four arms, four legs, and two bodies joined 
together; one day they were split into two "as one would split eggs in 
two," and ever since then each half seeks to recover its other half: the 
gods decided later that new human beings would be created by the 
coupling of two unlike halves. This story only tries to explain love: 
the differentiation of sexes is taken as a given from the start. Aristotle 
offers no better account: for if cooperation of matter and form is 
necessary for any action, it is not necessary that active and passive 
principles be distributed into two categories of heterogenic 
individuals. Saint Thomas declared that woman was an "inessential" 
being, which, from a masculine point of view, is a way of positing the 
accidental character of sexuality. Hegel, however, would have been 
untrue to his rationalist passion had he not attempted to justify it 
logically. According to him, sexuality is the mediation by which the 
subject concretely achieves itself as a genus. "The genus is therefore 
present in the individual as a straining against the inadequacy of its 
single actuality, as the urge to obtain its self-feeling in the other of its 
genus, to integrate itself through union with it and through this 
mediation to close the genus with itself and bring it into existence 
— copulation. " 3 And a little further along, "The process consists in 
this, that they become in reality what they are in themselves, namely, 


one genus, the same subjective vitality." And Hegel then declares that 
in order for the process of union to occur, there has to be 
differentiation of the two sexes. But his demonstration is not 
convincing: the preconceived idea of locating the three moments of the 
syllogism in any operation is too obvious here. The surpassing of the 
individual toward the species, by which individual and species 
accomplish themselves in their own truth could occur without the 
third element, by the simple relation of genitor to child: reproduction 
could be asexual. Or the relation to each other could be that of two of 
the same kind, with differentiation occurring in the singularity of 
individuals of the same type, as in hermaphroditic species. Hegel's 
description brings out a very important significance of sexuality: but 
he always makes the same error of equating significance with reason. 
It is through sexual activity that men define the sexes and their 
relations, just as they create the meaning and value of all the functions 
they accomplish: but sexual activity is not necessarily implied in the 
human being's nature. In Phenomenologie de la perception 
{Phenomenology of Perception), Merleau-Ponty points out that 
human existence calls for revision of the notions of necessity and 
contingency. "Existence has no fortuitous attributes, no content which 
does not contribute towards giving it its form; it does not give 
admittance to any pure fact because it is the process by which facts are 
drawn up." This is true. But it is also true that there are conditions 
without which the very fact of existence would seem to be impossible. 
Presence in the world vigorously implies the positing of a body that is 
both a thing of the world and a point of view on this world: but this 
body need not possess this or that particular structure. InL'etre et le 
neant (Being and Nothingness), Sartre disputes Heidegger's 
affirmation that human reality is doomed to death because of its 
finitude; he establishes that a finite and temporally limitless existence 
could be conceivable; nevertheless, if human life were not inhabited 
by death, the relationship of human beings to the world and to 
themselves would be so deeply upset that the statement "man is 
mortal" would be anything but an empirical truth: immortal, an 
existent would no longer be what we call a man. One of the essential 
features of man's destiny is that the movement of his temporal life 
creates behind and ahead of him the infinity of the past and the future: 
the perpetuation of the species appears thus as the correlative of 


individual limitation, so the phenomenon of reproduction can be 
considered as ontologically grounded. But this is where one must 
stop; the perpetuation of the species does not entail sexual 
differentiation. That it is taken on by existents in such a way that it 
thereby enters into the concrete definition of existence, so be it. 
Nevertheless, a consciousness without a body or an immortal human 
being is rigorously inconceivable, whereas a society can be imagined 
that reproduces itself by parthenogenesis or is composed of 

Opinions about the respective roles of the two sexes have varied 
greatly; they were initially devoid of any scientific basis and only 
reflected social myths. It was thought for a long time, and is still 
thought in some primitive societies based on matrilineal filiation, that 
the father has no part in the child's conception: ancestral larvae were 
supposed to infiltrate the womb in the form of living germs. With the 
advent of patriarchy, the male resolutely claimed his posterity; the 
mother had to be granted a role in procreation even though she merely 
carried and fattened the living seed: the father alone was the creator. 
Artistotle imagined that the fetus was produced by the meeting of the 
sperm and the menses: in this symbiosis, woman just provided 
passive material, while the male principle is strength, activity, 
movement, and life. Hippocrates' doctrine also recognized two types 
of seeds, a weak or female one, and a strong one, which was male. 
Artistotelian theory was perpetuated throughout the Middle Ages and 
down to the modern period. In the middle of the seventeenth century, 
Harvey, slaughtering female deer shortly after they had mated, found 
vesicles in the uterine horns that he thought were eggs but that were 
really embryos. The Danish scientist Steno coined the term "ovaries" 
for the female genital glands that had until then been called "feminine 
testicles," and he noted the existence of vesicles on their surface that 
Graaf, in 1672, had erroneously identified as eggs and to which he 
gave his name. The ovary was still regarded as a homologue of the 
male gland. That same year, though, "spermatic animalcules" were 
discovered penetrating the feminine womb. But it was thought that 
they went there for nourishment only, and that the individual was 
already prefigured in them; in 1694, the Dutchman Hartsoeker drew 
an image of the homunculus hidden in the sperm, and in 1699 another 
scientist declared he had seen the sperm cast off a kind of slough 


under which there was a little man, which he also drew. In these 
hypotheses woman merely fattened a living and active, and perfectly 
constituted, principle. These theories were not universally accepted, 
and discussion continued until the nineteenth century. The invention 
of the microscope led to the study of the animal egg; in 1827, Baer 
identified the mammal's egg: an element contained inside Graaf's 
follicle. Soon its structure could be studied; in 1835, the sarcode — that 
is, the protoplasm — and then the cell were discovered; in 1877, the 
sperm was observed penetrating the starfish egg. From that the 
symmetry of the two gametes' nuclei was established; their fusion 
was analyzed in detail for the first time in 1883 by a Belgian 

But Aristotle's ideas have not lost all validity. Hegel thought the 
two sexes must be different: one is active and the other passive, and it 
goes without saying that passivity will be the female's lot. "Because 
of this differentiation, man is thus the active principle while woman is 
the passive principle because she resides in her non-developed 
unity." 4 And even when the ovum was recognized as an active 
principle, men continued to pit its inertia against the agility of the 
sperm. Today, there is a tendency to see the contrary: the discoveries 
of parthenogenesis have led some scientists to reduce the role of the 
male to that of a simple physicochemical agent. In some species the 
action of an acid or a mechanical stimulation has been shown to 
trigger the division of the egg and the development of the embryo; and 
from that it was boldly assumed that the male gamete was not 
necessary for generation; it would be at most a ferment; perhaps 
man's cooperation in procreation would one day become useless: that 
seems to be many women's desire. But nothing warrants such a bold 
expectation because nothing warrants universalizing life's specific 
processes. The phenomena of asexual multiplication and 
parthenogenesis are neither more nor less fundamental than those of 
sexual reproduction. And it has already been noted that this form is 
not a priori favored: but no fact proves it is reducible to a more 
elementary mechanism. 

Rejecting any a priori doctrine, any implausible theory, we find 
ourselves before a fact that has neither ontological nor empirical basis 
and whose impact cannot a priori be understood. By examining it in 
its concrete reality, we can hope to extract its significance: thus 


perhaps the content of the word "female" will come to light. 

The idea here is not to propose a philosophy of life or to take sides 
too hastily in the quarrel between finalism and mechanism. Yet it is 
noteworthy that physiologists and biologists all use a more or less 
finalistic language merely because they ascribe meaning to vital 
phenomena. We will use their vocabulary. Without coming to any 
conclusion about life and consciousness, we can affirm that any living 
fact indicates transcendence, and that a project is in the making in 
every function: these descriptions do not suggest more than this. 

In most species, male and female organisms cooperate for 
reproduction. They are basically defined by the gametes they produce. 
In some algae and fungi, the cells that fuse to produce the egg are 
identical; these cases of isogamy are significant in that they manifest 
the basal equivalence of the usually differentiated gametes: but their 
analogy remains striking. Sperm and ova result from a basically 
identical cellular evolution: the development of primitive female cells 
into oocytes differs from that of spermatocytes by protoplasmic 
phenomena, but the nuclear phenomena are approximately the same. 
The idea the biologist Ancel expressed in 1903 is still considered 
valid today: "An undifferentiated progerminating cell becomes male or 
female depending on the conditions in the genital gland at the moment 
of its appearance, conditions determined by the transformation of 
some epithelial cells into nourishing elements, developers of a special 
material." This primary kinship is expressed in the structure of the 
two gametes that carry the same number of chromosomes inside each 
species. During fertilization, the two nuclei merge their substance, and 
the chromosomes in each are reduced to half their original number: 
this reduction takes place in both of them in a similar way; the last two 
divisions of the ovum result in the formation of polar globules 
equivalent to the last divisions of the sperm. It is thought today that, 
depending on the species, the male or female gamete determines the 
sex: for mammals, the sperm possesses a chromosome that is 
heterogenic to the others and potentially either male or female. 
According to Mendel's statistical laws, transmission of hereditary 
characteristics takes place equally from the father and the mother. 
What is important to see is that in this meeting neither gamete takes 


precedence over the other: they both sacrifice their individuality; the 
egg absorbs the totality of their substance. There are thus two strong 
current biases that — at least at this basic biological level — prove false: 
The first one is the female's passivity; the living spark is not enclosed 
within either of the two gametes. It springs forth from their meeting; 
the nucleus of the ovum is a vital principle perfectly symmetrical to 
the sperm's. The second bias contradicts the first, which does not 
exclude the fact that they often coexist: the permanence of the species 
is guaranteed by the female since the male principle has an explosive 
and fleeting existence. In reality, the embryo equally perpetuates the 
germ cells of the father and the mother and retransmits them together 
to its descendants, sometimes in a male and sometimes in a female 
form. One might say that an androgynous germ cell survives the 
individual metamorphoses of the soma from generation to generation. 

That being said, there are highly interesting secondary differences 
to be observed between the ovum and the sperm; the essential 
singularity of the ovum is that it is supplied with material destined to 
nourish and protect the embryo; it stocks up on reserves from which 
the fetus will build its tissues, reserves that are not a living substance 
but an inert material; the result is a massive, relatively voluminous, 
spherical or ellipsoidal form. The bird's egg's dimensions are well- 
known. The woman's egg measures 0.13 mm, while the human sperm 
contains sixty thousand sperm per cubic millimeter: their mass is 
extremely small. The sperm has a threadlike tail, a little elongated 
head; no foreign substance weighs it down. It is entirely life; this 
structure destines it for mobility; the ovum, on the contrary, where the 
future of the fetus is stored, is a fixed element: enclosed in the female 
organism or suspended in an exterior environment, it waits passively 
for fertilization. The male gamete seeks it out; the sperm is always a 
naked cell, while the ovum is, according to the species, protected or 
not by a membrane; but in any case, the sperm bumps into the ovum 
when it comes into contact with it, makes it waver, and infiltrates it; 
the male gamete loses its tail; its head swells, and, twisting, it reaches 
the nucleus. Meanwhile, the egg immediately forms a membrane that 
keeps other sperm from entering. For echinoderms where fertilization 
is external, it is easy to observe the rush of the sperm that surround 
the floating and inert egg like a halo. This competition is also another 
important phenomenon found in most species; much smaller than the 


ovum, the sperm are generally produced in considerable quantities, 
and each ovum has many suitors. 

Thus, the ovum, active in the nucleus, its essential principle, is 
superficially passive; its mass, closed upon itself, compact in itself, 
evokes the nocturnal heaviness and repose of the in-itself: the ancients 
visualized the closed world in the form of a sphere or opaque atom; 
immobile, the ovum waits; by contrast, the open sperm, tiny and agile, 
embodies the impatience and worry of existence. One should not get 
carried away with the pleasure of allegories: the ovum has sometimes 
been likened to immanence and the sperm to transcendence. By giving 
up its transcendence and mobility, the sperm penetrates the female 
element: it is grabbed and castrated by the inert mass that absorbs it 
after cutting off its tail; like all passive actions, this one is magical and 
disturbing; the male gamete activity is rational, a measurable 
movement in terms of time and space. In truth, these are merely 
ramb lings. Male and female gametes merge together in the egg; 
together they cancel each other out in their totality. It is false to claim 
that the egg voraciously absorbs the male gamete and just as false to 
say that the latter victoriously appropriates the female cell's reserves 
because in the act that merges them, their individuality disappears. 
And to a mechanistic philosophy, the movement undoubtedly looks 
like a rational phenomenon par excellence; but for modern physics the 
idea is no clearer than that of action at a distance; besides, the details 
of the physicochemical interactions leading to fertilization are not 
known. It is possible, however, to come away with a valuable 
indication from this meeting. There are two movements that come 
together in life, and life maintains itself only by surpassing itself. It 
does not surpass itself without maintaining itself; these two moments 
are always accomplished together. It is academic to claim to separate 
them: nevertheless, it is either one or the other that dominates. The 
two unified gametes go beyond and are perpetuated; but the ovum's 
structure anticipates future needs; it is constituted to nourish the life 
that will awaken in it, while the sperm is in no way equipped to 
ensure the development of the germ it gives rise to. In contrast, 
whereas the sperm moves around, the ovum is incapable of triggering 
the change that will bring about a new explosion of life. Without the 
egg's prescience, the sperm's action would be useless; but without the 
latter's initiative, the egg would not accomplish its vital potential. The 


conclusion is thus that fundamentally the role of the two gametes is 
identical; together they create a living being in which both of them 
lose and surpass themselves. But in the secondary and superficial 
phenomena that condition fertilization, it is through the male element 
that the change in situation occurs for the new eclosion of life; it is 
through the female element that this eclosion is established in a stable 

It would be rash to deduce from such an observation that woman's 
place is in the home: but there are rash people. In his book 
Temperament et caractere selon les individus, les sexes et les races 
(Nature and Character According to Individuals, Sex, and Race), 
Alfred Fouillee claimed he could define woman entirely from the 
ovum and man from the sperm; many so-called deep theories are 
based on this game of dubious analogies. It is never clear what 
philosophy of nature this pseudo-thinking refers to. If one considers 
laws of heredity, men and women come equally from a sperm and an 
ovum. I suppose that vestiges of the old medieval philosophy — that 
the cosmos was the exact reflection of a microcosm — are floating 
around in these foggy minds: it was imagined that the ovum is a 
female homunculus and woman a giant ovum. These reveries 
dismissed since the days of alchemy make a weird contrast with the 
scientific precision of descriptions being used at this very moment: 
modern biology does not mesh with medieval symbolism; but our 
people do not look all that closely. If one is a bit scrupulous, one has 
to agree that it is a long way from ovum to woman. The ovum does 
not yet even contain the very notion of female. Hegel rightly notes that 
the sexual relationship cannot be reduced to that of two gametes. 
Thus, the female organism has to be studied in its totality. 

It has already been pointed out that for many vegetables and some 
primitive animals, among them mo Husks, gamete specification does 
not lead to individual specification, as they produce both ova and 
sperm. Even when the sexes separate, the barriers between them are 
not tight like those that separate species; just as gametes are defined 
from an originally undifferentiated tissue, males and females develop 
more as variations on a common base. For certain animals — the 
Bonellia viridis is the most typical case* — the embryo is first asexual, 
and its eventual sexuality is determined by the incertitudes of its 
development. It is accepted today that in most species sex 


determination depends on the genotypical constitution of the egg. The 
virgin egg of the honeybee reproducing itself by parthenogenesis 
yields males exclusively; that of fruit flies in the exact same conditions 
yields females exclusively. When eggs are fertilized, it is to be noted 
that — except for some spiders — an approximately equal number of 
male and female individuals is procreated; differentiation comes from 
the heterogeneity of one of the two types of gametes: for mammals 
sperm possess either a male or a female potentiality. It is not really 
known what determines the singular character of heterogenic gametes 
during spermatogenesis or oogenesis; in any case, Mendel's statistical 
laws are sufficient to explain their regular distribution. For both sexes, 
fertilization and the beginning of embryonic development occur in an 
identical way; the epithelial tissue destined to evolve into a gonad is 
undifferentiated at the outset; at a certain stage of maturation testicles 
take shape or later the ovary takes form. This explains why there are 
many intermediaries between hermaphroditism and gonochorism; 
very often one of the sexes possesses certain organs characteristic of 
the complementary sex: the toad is the most striking case of that; the 
male has an atrophied ovary called Bidder's organ that can be made to 
produce eggs artificially. Mammals also have vestiges of this sexual 
bipotentiality: for example, the pedicled and sessile hydra, the uterus 
masculinus, mammary glands in the male, Gartner's duct in the 
female, and the clitoris. Even in species where sexual division is the 
most clear-cut, there are individuals that are both male and female 
simultaneously: cases of inters exuality are numerous in animals and 
human beings; and in butterflies and crustaceans there are examples of 
gynandromorphism in which male and female characteristics are 
juxtaposed in a kind of mosaic. Genotypically defined, the fetus is 
nevertheless deeply influenced by the milieu from which it draws its 
nourishment: for ants, honeybees, and termites, how nutrition occurs 
makes the larva a realized female or thwarts its sexual maturation, 
reducing it to the rank of worker; the influence in this case pervades 
the whole organism: for insects the soma is sexually defined very 
early and does not depend on gonads. For vertebrates, it is essentially 
the gonadic hormones that play a regulatory role. Many experiments 
have demonstrated that varying the endocrine milieu makes it possible 
to act on sex determination; other grafting and castration experiments 
carried out on adult animals have led to the modern theory of 


sexuality: in male and female vertebrates, the soma is identical and can 
be considered a neutral element; the action of the gonad gives it its 
sexual characteristics; some of the secreted hormones act as stimulants 
and others as inhibitors; the genital tract itself is somatic, and 
embryology shows that it takes shape under the influence of 
hormones from bisexual precursors. Inters exuality exists when 
hormonal balance has not been realized and when neither of the two 
sexual potentialities has been clearly accomplished. 

Equally distributed in the species, and evolved analogously from 
identical roots, male and female organisms seem profoundly 
symmetrical once they are formed. Both are characterized by the 
presence of gamete-producing glands, ovaries, or testicles, with the 
analogous processes of spermatogenesis and ovogenesis, as was seen 
earlier; these glands deliver their secretion in a more or less complex 
canal according to the hierarchy of the species: the female drops the 
egg directly by the oviduct and holds it in the cloaca or in a 
differentiated uterus before expelling it; the male either lets go of the 
semen outside or is equipped with a copulating organ that allows it to 
penetrate the female. Statistically, the male and the female thus look 
like two complementary types. They have to be envisaged from a 
functional point of view to grasp their singularity. 

It is very difficult to give a generally valid description of the notion 
of female; defining her as a carrier of ova and the male as a carrier of 
sperm is insufficient because the relation of organism to gonads is 
extremely variable; inversely, the differentiation of the gametes does 
not directly affect the organism as a whole: it was sometimes claimed 
that as the ovum was bigger, it consumed more living force than the 
sperm; but the latter is secreted in infinitely greater quantity so that in 
the two sexes the expenditure balances out. Spermatogenesis was 
taken as an example of prodigality and ovulation a model of economy: 
but in this phenomenon there is also an absurd profusion; the 
immense majority of eggs are never fertilized. In any case, gametes 
and gonads are not microcosms of the whole organism. This is what 
has to be studied directly. 

One of the most noteworthy features when surveying the steps of 
the animal ladder is that, from bottom to top, life becomes more 
individual; at the bottom it concentrates on the maintenance of the 
species, and at the top it puts its energies into single individuals. In 


lower species, the organism is reduced to barely more than the 
reproductive apparatus; in this case, the ovum — and therefore the 
female — takes precedence over everything else, since it is above all 
the ovum that is dedicated to the sheer repetition of life; but it is barely 
more than an abdomen, and its existence is entirely devoured by the 
work of a monstrous ovulation. It reaches gigantic dimensions 
compared with the male; but its members are often just stumps, its 
body a formless bag; all the organs have degenerated to nourish the 
eggs. In truth, although they constitute two distinct organisms, males 
and females can hardly be thought of as individuals; they form one 
whole with elements that are inextricably linked: these are 
intermediary cases between hermaphroditism and gonochorism. For 
the entoniscid, parasites that live off the crab, the female is a kind of 
whitish sausage surrounded by incubating slivers harboring 
thousands of eggs; in their midst are minuscule males as well as 
larvae destined to provide replacement males. The enslavement of the 
dwarf male is even more total in the edriolydnus: it is attached beneath 
the female's operculum and is without a digestive tube of its own; it is 
solely devoted to reproduction. In all these cases the female is just as 
enslaved as the male: she is a slave to the species; while the male is 
fastened to his spouse, his spouse is also fastened, either to a living 
organism on which she feeds as a parasite or to a mineral substratum; 
she is consumed by producing eggs the minuscule male fertilizes. As 
life takes on more complex forms, individual autonomy develops with 
the loosening of the link uniting the sexes; but insects of both sexes 
remain tightly subordinate to the eggs. In the case of ephemerals, both 
spouses often die after coitus and laying; and in the case of rotifers 
and mosquitoes, the male, lacking a digestive apparatus, sometimes 
perishes after fertilization, while the female can feed herself and 
survive: egg formation and laying take time; the mother dies as soon 
as the next generation's future has been assured. The privilege of 
many female insects comes from the fact that fertilization is generally 
a rapid process while ovulation and incubation of the eggs demand a 
long period of time. For termites, the enormous mush-stuffed queen 
that lays an egg a second until she is sterile — and then is pitilessly 
massacred — is no less a slave than the dwarf male attached to her 
abdomen that fertilizes the eggs as they are expelled. In bee and ant 
matriarchies, males are intruders that are massacred each season: at the 


time of the wedding flight, all the male ants escape from the anthill 
and fly toward the females; if they reach and fertilize them, they die 
immediately, exhausted; if not, the female workers refuse them entry. 
They kill them in front of the entrances or let them starve to death; but 
the fertilized female has a sad fate: she digs herself into the earth alone 
and often dies from exhaustion while laying the first eggs; if she 
manages to reconstitute a colony, she is imprisoned for twelve years 
laying eggs ceaselessly; the female workers whose sexuality has been 
atrophied live for four years, but their whole life is devoted to raising 
the larvae. Likewise for the bees: the drone that catches the queen in 
her wedding flight crashes to the ground eviscerated; the other drones 
return to their colony, where they are unproductive and in the way; at 
the beginning of the winter, they are killed. But the sterile worker bees 
trade their right to life for incessant work; the queen is really the 
hive's slave: she lays eggs ceaselessly; and the old queen dies; some 
larvae are nourished so they can try to succeed her. The first one 
hatched kills the others in the cradle. The female giant spider carries 
her eggs in a bag until they reach maturity: she is bigger and stronger 
than the male, and she sometimes devours him after coupling; the 
same practices can be seen in the praying mantis, which has taken 
shape as the myth of devouring femininity: the egg castrates the 
sperm, and the praying mantis assassinates her spouse; these facts 
prefigure a woman's dream of castration. But in truth, the praying 
mantis only manifests such cruelty in captivity: free and with rich 
enough food around, she rarely makes a meal out of the male; if she 
does, it is like the solitary ant that often eats some of her own eggs in 
order to have the strength to lay eggs and perpetuate the species. 
Seeing in these facts the harbinger of the "battle of the sexes" that sets 
individuals as such against each other is just rambling. Neither for the 
ants, nor the honeybees, nor the termites, nor the spider, nor the 
praying mantis can one say that the female enslaves and devours the 
male: it is the species that devours both of them in different ways. The 
female lives longer and seems to have more importance; but she has 
no autonomy; laying, incubation, and care of the larvae make up her 
whole destiny; her other functions are totally or partially atrophied. By 
contrast, an individual existence takes shape in the male. He very 
often takes more initiative than the female in fertilization; it is he who 
seeks her out, who attacks, palpates, seizes her and imposes coitus on 


her; sometimes he has to fight off other males. Accordingly, the 
organs of locomotion, touch, and prehension are also often more 
developed; many female butterflies are apterous, whereas their males 
have wings; males have more developed colors, elytrons, feet, and 
claws; and sometimes this profusion can also be seen in a luxurious 
vanity of gorgeous colors. Aside from the fleeting coitus, the male's 
life is useless, gratuitous: next to the diligence of worker females, the 
laziness of drones is a privilege worth noting. But this privilege is 
outrageous; the male often pays with his life for this uselessness that 
contains the germ of independence. A species that enslaves the female 
punishes the male attempting to escape: it eliminates him brutally. 

In the higher forms of life, reproduction becomes the production of 
differentiated organisms; it has a twofold face: maintenance of the 
species and creation of new individuals; this innovative aspect asserts 
itself as the singularity of the individual is confirmed. It is thus 
striking that these two moments of perpetuation and creation divide; 
this break, already marked at the time of the egg's fertilization, is 
present in the generating phenomenon as a whole. The structure of the 
egg itself does not order this division; the female, like the male, 
possesses a certain autonomy, and her link with the egg loosens; the 
female fish, amphibian, and bird are much more than an abdomen; the 
weaker the mother-to-egg link, the less labor parturition involves, and 
the more undifferentiated is the relation between parents and their 
offspring. Sometimes, the newly hatched lives are the father's 
responsibility; this is often the case with fish. Water is an element that 
can carry eggs and sperm and enables their meeting; fertilization in the 
aquatic milieu is almost always external; fish do not mate: at best 
some rub against each other for stimulation. The mother expels the 
ova and the father the sperm: they have identical roles. There is no 
more reason for the mother to recognize the eggs as her own than the 
father. In some species, parents abandon the eggs, which develop 
without help; sometimes the mother has prepared a nest for them; 
sometimes she watches over them after fertilization; but very often the 
father takes charge of them: as soon as he has fertilized them, he 
chases away the female, who tries to devour them; he fiercely defends 
them from anything that approaches; there are those that put up a kind 
of protective nest by emitting air bubbles covered with an isolating 
substance; they also often incubate the eggs in their mouths or, like 


the sea horse, in the folds of the stomach. Analogous phenomena can 
be seen in toads: they do not have real coitus; the male embraces the 
female and this embrace stimulates the laying: while the eggs are 
coming out of the cloaca, the male lets out his sperm. Very often — 
and in particular in the toad known as the midwife toad — the father 
winds the strings of eggs around his feet and carries them around to 
guarantee their hatching. As for birds, the egg forms rather slowly 
within the female; the egg is both relatively big and hard to expel; it 
has much closer relations with the mother than with the father that 
fertilized it during a quick coitus; the female is the one who usually 
sits on it and then looks after the young; but very frequently the father 
participates in the nest's construction and the protection and nutrition 
of the young; there are rare cases — for example the passerine — where 
the male sits on the eggs and then raises the young. Male and female 
pigeons secrete a kind of milk in their crop that they feed to the 
fledglings. What is noteworthy in all these cases in which fathers play 
a nurturing role is that spermatogenesis stops during the period they 
devote to their offspring; busy with maintaining life, the father has no 
impetus to bring forth new life- forms. 

The most complex and concretely individualized life is found in 
mammals. The split of the two vital moments, maintaining and 
creating, takes place definitively in the separation of the sexes. In this 
branching out — and considering vertebrates only — the mother has the 
closest connection to her offspring, whereas the father is more 
uninterested; the whole organism of the female is adapted to and 
determined by the servitude of maternity, while the sexual initiative is 
the prerogative of the male. The female is the prey of the species; for 
one or two seasons, depending on the case, her whole life is regulated 
by a sexual cycle — the estrous cycle — whose length and periodicity 
vary from one species to another. This cycle has two phases: during 
the first one the ova mature (the number varies according to the 
species), and a nidification process occurs in the womb; in the second 
phase a fat necrosis is produced, ending in the elimination of the 
structure, that is a whitish discharge. The estrus corresponds to the 
period of heat; but heat in the female is rather passive; she is ready to 
receive the male, she waits for him; for mammals — and some birds — 
she might invite him; but she limits herself to calling him by noises, 
displays, or exhibitions; she could never impose coitus. That decision 


is up to him in the end. Even for insects where the female has major 
privileges and consents to total sacrifice for the species, it is usually 
the male that provokes fertilization; male fish often invite the female to 
spawn by their presence or by touching; for amphibians, the male acts 
as a stimulator. But for birds and above all mammals, the male 
imposes himself on her; very often she submits to him with 
indifference or even resists him. Whether she is provocative or 
consensual, it is he who takes her: she is taken. The word often has a 
very precise meaning: either because he has specific organs or 
because he is stronger, the male grabs and immobilizes her; he is the 
one that actively makes the coitus movements; for many insects, birds, 
and mammals, he penetrates her. In that regard, she is like a raped 
interiority. The male does not do violence to the species, because the 
species can only perpetuate itself by renewal; it would perish if ova 
and sperm did not meet; but the female whose job it is to protect the 
egg encloses it in herself, and her body that constitutes a shelter for 
the egg removes it from the male's fertilizing action; there is thus a 
resistance that has to be broken down, and so by penetrating the egg 
the male realizes himself as activity. His domination is expressed by 
the coital position of almost all animals; the male is on the female. 
And the organ he uses is incontestably material too, but it is seen in an 
animated state: it is a tool, while the female organ in this operation is 
merely an inert receptacle. The male deposits his sperm; the female 
receives it. Thus, although she plays a fundamentally active role in 
procreation, she endures coitus, which alienates her from herself by 
penetration and internal fertilization; although she feels the sexual 
need as an individual need — since in heat she might seek out the male 
— she nevertheless experiences the sexual adventure in its immediacy 
as an interior story and not in relation to the world and to others. But 
the fundamental difference between male and female mammals is that 
in the same quick instant, the sperm, by which the male's life 
transcends into another, becomes foreign to it and is separated from 
its body; thus the male, at the very moment it goes beyond its 
individuality, encloses itself once again in it. By contrast, the ovum 
began to separate itself from the female when, ripe, it released itself 
from the follicle to fall into the oviduct; penetrated by a foreign 
gamete, it implants itself in the uterus: first violated, the female is then 
alienated; she carries the fetus in her womb for varying stages of 


maturation depending on the species: the guinea pig is born almost 
adult; the dog close to a fetal state; inhabited by another who is 
nourished by her substance, the female is both herself and other than 
herself during the whole gestation period; after delivery, she feeds the 
newborn with milk from her breasts. This makes it difficult to know 
when it can be considered autonomous: at fertilization, birth, or 
weaning? It is noteworthy that the more the female becomes a separate 
individual, the more imperiously the living continuity is affirmed 
beyond any separation. The fish or the bird that expels the virgin 
ovum or the fertilized egg is less prey to its offspring than the female 
mammal. The female mammal recovers her autonomy after the birth of 
the young: a distance is thus established between her and them; and 
starting from this separation, she devotes herself to them; she takes 
care of them, showing initiative and invention; she fights to defend 
them against other animals and even becomes aggressive. But she 
does not usually seek to affirm her individuality; she does not oppose 
either males or females; she does not have a fighting instinct; 5 in spite 
of Darwin's assertions, disparaged today, the female in general 
accepts the male that presents himself. It is not that she lacks 
individual qualities — far from it; in periods when she escapes the 
servitude of maternity, she can sometimes be the male's equal: the 
mare is as quick as the stallion, the female hound has as keen a nose 
as the male, female monkeys show as much intelligence as males 
when tested. But this individuality is not asserted: the female abdicates 
it for the benefit of the species that demands this abdication. 

The male's destiny is very different; it has just been shown that in 
his very surpassing, he separates himself and is confirmed in himself. 
This feature is constant from insects to higher animals. Even fish and 
cetaceans that live in schools, loosely gathered within the group, tear 
themselves away when in heat; they isolate themselves and become 
aggressive toward other males. While sexuality is immediate for the 
female, it is indirect in the male: he actively bridges the distance 
between desire and its satisfaction; he moves, seeks, feels the female, 
caresses her, immobilizes her before penetrating; the organs for the 
functions of relation, locomotion, and prehension are often better 
developed in the male. It is noteworthy that the active impulsion that 
produces his sperm's multiplication is accompanied by brilliant 
feathers, shiny scales, horns, antlers, a crest, song, exuberance; 


neither the "wedding attire" he puts on in heat nor the displays of 
seduction are now thought to have a selective finality; but they are 
witness to the power of life that flourishes in him with gratuitous and 
magnificent splendor. This vital generosity, the activity deployed in 
mating and in coitus itself, the dominating affirmation of his power 
over the female — all of this contributes to positing the individual as 
such at the moment he surpasses himself. Hegel is right to see the 
subjective element in the male while the female remains enclosed in 
the species. Subjectivity and separateness immediately mean conflict. 
Aggressiveness is one of the characteristics of the male in heat. It 
cannot be explained by competition, since there are about the same 
number of females as males; it is rather competition that is explained 
by this combative will. It is as if before procreating, the male, claiming 
as his very own the act that perpetuates the species, confirms the 
reality of his individuality in his fight against his fellow creatures. The 
species inhabits the female and absorbs much of her individual life; 
the male, by contrast, integrates specific living forces in his individual 
life. He is undoubtedly also subject to laws that surpass him; he 
experiences spermatogenesis and periodic heats; but these processes 
affect the organism as a whole much less than the estrus cycle; neither 
sperm production nor ovogenesis as such is tiring: the absorbing job 
for the female is the development of the egg into an adult animal. 
Coitus is a rapid operation that does not reduce the male's vitality. He 
manifests almost no paternal instinct. He very often abandons the 
female after mating. When he remains near her as head of a family 
group (monogamic family, harem, or herd), he plays a protective and 
nurturing role vis-a-vis the whole community; it is rare for him to take 
a direct interest in the children. In those species that are favorable to 
the flourishing of individual life, the male's effort at autonomy — 
which, in the lower animals, leads to its ruin — is crowned with 
success. He is usually bigger than the female, stronger, quicker, more 
adventurous; he leads a more independent life whose activities are 
more gratuitous; he is more conquering, more imperious: in animal 
societies, it is he who commands. 

In nature nothing is ever completely clear: the two types, male and 
female, are not always sharply distinguished; there is often a 
dimorphism — the color of the coat, the placement of the mottling — 
that seems absolutely contingent; it does happen, though, that the two 


types are not distinguishable, their functions barely differentiated, as 
was seen with fish. However, as a whole and especially at the top of 
the animal scale, the two sexes represent two diverse aspects of the 
species' life. Their opposition is not, as has been claimed, one of 
passivity and activity: not only is the ovum nucleus active, but the 
development of the embryo is also a living process and not a 
mechanical one. It would be too simple to define this opposition as 
one of change and permanence: the sperm creates only because its 
vitality is maintained in the egg; the ovum can only exist by 
surpassing itself or else it regresses and degenerates. But it is true that 
in both these active operations — maintenance and creation — the 
synthesis of becoming is not realized in the same way. Maintaining 
means denying the dispersion of instants, thereby affirming continuity 
in the course of their outpouring; creating means exploding an 
irreducible and separate present within a temporal unity, and it is also 
true that for the female it is the continuity of life that seeks to realize 
itself in spite of separation, while separation into new and 
individualized forces is brought about by male initiative; he can affirm 
himself in his autonomy; he integrates the specific energy into his 
own life; by contrast, female individuality is fought by the interest of 
the species; she seems possessed by outside forces: alienated. This 
explains why sexual opposition increases rather than abates when the 
individuality of organisms asserts itself. The male finds more and 
more ways to use the forces of which he is master; the female feels 
her subjugation more and more; the conflict between her own interests 
and those of the generating forces that inhabit her exasperates her. 
Giving birth for cows and mares is far more painful and dangerous 
than for female mice and rabbits. Woman, the most individualized of 
females, is also the most fragile, the one who experiences her destiny 
the most dramatically and who distinguishes herself the most 
significantly from her male. 

In the human species as in most others, almost as many individuals 
of both sexes are born (100 girls for 104 boys); embryonic evolution 
is analogous; however, the original epithelium remains neuter longer 
in the female fetus; as a result, it is subjected to hormonal influence 
over a longer period, and its development is more often inverted; most 
hermaphrodites are thought to be genotypically female subjects who 
are masculinized later: it could be said that the male organism is 


immediately defined as male, whereas the female embryo is reluctant 
to accept its femaleness; but these tentative beginnings of fetal life are 
not yet well enough understood for them to be assigned a meaning. 
Once formed, the genital apparatus is symmetrical in both sexes; the 
hormones of each type belong to the same chemical family, the 
sterols, and when all things are considered, all of them derive from 
cholesterol; they order the secondary differentiation of the soma. 
Neither their formula nor their anatomical singularities define the 
human female as such. Her functional evolution is what distinguishes 
her from the male. Man's development is comparatively simple. From 
birth to puberty, he grows more or less regularly; at around fifteen or 
sixteen years old, spermatogenesis begins and continues until old age; 
hormone production occurs at the same time and marks the male 
constitution of the soma. When that happens, the male's sex life is 
normally integrated into his individual existence: in terms of desire 
and coitus, his surpassing toward the species is an integral part of the 
subjective moment of his transcendence: he is his body. Woman's 
history is much more complex. At the beginning of embryonic life, 
the supply of ovocytes is definitively formed; the ovary contains 
about fifty thousand ova, and each one is enclosed in a follicle, with 
about four hundred reaching maturity. At the moment of birth the 
species has taken possession of her and seeks to affirm itself; on 
coming into the world, the woman goes through a kind of first 
puberty; ovocytes suddenly grow bigger; then the ovary reduces by 
about one-fifth. One could say that the child was granted a reprieve; 
while its organism develops, its genital system remains more or less 
stationary. Some follicles swell up without reaching maturity; the 
girl's growth is analogous to the boy's: at the same age she is often 
bigger and heavier than he. But at puberty the species reasserts its 
rights: influenced by ovarian secretions, the number of growing 
follicles increases, the ovary becomes congested and grows, one of 
the ova reaches maturity, and the menstrual cycle begins; the genital 
system attains its definitive size and form, the soma becomes 
feminized, and the endocrine balance is set up. It is worth noting that 
this event has all the characteristics of a crisis; the woman's body 
does not accept the species' installation in her without a fight; and this 
fight weakens and endangers her; before puberty, about the same 
number of girls die for every 100 boys: from fourteen to eighteen, 


128 girls die for every 100 boys, and from eighteen to twenty-two 
105 girls for every 100 boys. This is the period when chlorosis, 
tuberculosis, scoliosis, osteomyelitis, and such strike. Puberty is 
abnormally early for some subjects: it can occur at four or five years 
of age. For others, it does not begin at all: the subject is infantile, 
suffering from amenorrhea or dysmenorrhea. Some women manifest 
virile characteristics: too many secretions from the adrenal glands give 
them masculine characteristics. These anomalies are absolutely not a 
victory of the individual over the tyranny of the species: there is no 
way to escape that tyranny because it enslaves individual life at the 
same time that it nourishes it; this duality can be seen in the ovarian 
functions; the woman's vitality takes root in the ovary, that of the man 
in the testicles: in both cases the castrated individual is not only sterile: 
it regresses and degenerates; un-"formed" and badly formed, the 
whole organism is impoverished and out of balance; it can only 
flourish with the flourishing of the genital system; and yet many 
genital phenomena are not in the interest of the subject's individual 
life and even put it in danger. The mammary glands that develop at 
puberty have no role in the woman's individual economy: they can be 
removed at any moment in her life. The finality of many ovarian 
secretions is in the egg, in its maturity, in the adaptation of the uterus 
for its needs: for the organism as a whole, they are a factor of 
imbalance more than regulation; the woman is more adapted to the 
egg's needs than to herself. From puberty to menopause she is the 
principal site of a story that takes place in her and does not concern 
her personally. Anglo-Saxons call menstruation "the curse," and it is 
true that there is no individual finality in the menstrual cycle. It was 
thought in Aristotle's time that the blood that flowed each month, if 
fertilization occurred, was to constitute the flesh and blood of the 
child; the truth of this old theory is that women endlessly start up the 
labor of gestation. For other mammals, this estrous cycle plays itself 
out during one season; there is no bloody flow: only in higher 
monkeys and women does this cycle take place in pain and blood. 6 
For about fourteen days one of the Graafian follicles that envelops the 
eggs increases in volume and ripens at the same time that the ovary 
secretes the hormone folhculin at the level of the follicle. Ovulation 
takes place on the fourteenth day: the walls of the follicle disintegrate 
(sometimes causing a slight hemorrhage); the egg falls into the 


fallopian tubes while the opening evolves into the yellow body. Then 
begins the second or corpus luteum phase characterized by the 
secretion of the hormone progesterone that acts on the uterus. The 
uterus changes in that the wall's capillary system swells, creases, and 
waffles, forming a kind of lacework; this is the construction of a 
cradle in the womb meant to receive the fertilized egg. As these 
cellular transformations are irreversible, this construction is not 
reabsorbed in cases where there is no fertilization: in other mammals 
the useless debris is possibly carried off by the lymph vessels. But for 
woman when the endometrial lace collapses, there is an exfoliation of 
the lining, the capillaries open up, and a bloody mass seeps out. Then, 
while the corpus luteum is reconstituted, a new follicular phase 
begins. This complex process, whose details are still quite mysterious, 
sets the whole body in motion as it is accompanied by hormonal 
secretions that act on the thyroid and pituitary glands, the central and 
peripheral nervous systems, and thus on all the organs. Almost all 
women — more than 85 percent — show signs of distress during this 
period. Blood pressure rises before the beginning of the flow of blood 
and then falls; the pulse rate and often the temperature increase; there 
are frequent cases of fever; the abdomen is painful; there is often 
constipation and then diarrhea, an increase in the liver volume, urea 
retention, albumin deficiency, or micro albumin; many women have 
hyperemia of the pituitary gland (sore throat), and others complain of 
auditory and visual problems; there is a rise in perspiration secretions 
accompanied by a sometimes strong sui generis odor at the beginning 
of and often throughout the menstrual period. Basal metabolism 
increases. The number of red blood cells decreases; however, the 
blood carries substances usually kept in reserve in the tissues, in 
particular calcium salts; these salts act on the ovary, on the thyroid that 
is overactive, and on the pituitary gland that regulates the 
metamorphosis of the activated uterine tissue; this glandular instability 
weakens the nervous system: the central nervous system is affected, 
often causing headaches, and the peripheral nervous system 
overreacts: the automatic control by the central nervous system is 
reduced, which relaxes the reflexes and the convulsive complexes and 
is manifested in great mood changes: woman is more emotional, 
nervous, and irritable than usual and can manifest serious 
psychological problems. This is when she feels most acutely that her 


body is an alienated opaque thing; it is the prey of a stubborn and 
foreign life that makes and unmakes a crib in her every month; every 
month a child is prepared to be born and is aborted in the flow of the 
crimson tide; woman is her body as man is his, 7 but her body is 
something other than her. 

Woman experiences an even stronger alienation when the fertilized 
egg drops into the uterus and develops there; gestation is, of course, a 
normal phenomenon that is not harmful to the mother if normal 
conditions of health and nutrition prevail: certain beneficial 
interactions develop between her and the fetus; however, contrary to 
an optimistic theory that is so obviously useful socially, gestation is 
tiring work that offers woman no benefit as an individual but that 
demands serious sacrifices. 8 In the early months, it often brings with 
it appetite loss and vomiting that is not observed in any other domestic 
female and shows the body's revolt against the species taking 
possession of it; the body loses phosphorus, calcium, and iron, the 
last of these losses being very hard to overcome later; the metabolic 
hyperactivity excites the endocrine system; the negative nervous 
system is in a heightened state of excitability; the specific weight of 
the blood decreases, and it is anemic, like "that of people who fast, 
who are starving, or who have been bled many times, and 
convalescents." 9 All that a healthy and well-nourished woman can 
hope for after childbirth is to recoup her losses without too much 
trouble; but often serious accidents or at least dangerous disorders 
occur during pregnancy; and if the woman is not sturdy, if she is not 
careful in her personal hygiene, she will be prematurely misshapen 
and aged by her pregnancies: it is well-known how frequent this is in 
the countryside. Childbirth itself is painful; it is dangerous. This crisis 
shows clearly that the body does not always meet the needs of both 
the species and the individual; the child sometimes dies, or while 
coming into life, it kills the mother; or its birth can cause her a chronic 
illness. Breastfeeding is also an exhausting servitude; a set of factors 
— the main one undoubtedly being the appearance of a hormone, 
progesterone — brings milk secretion into the mammary glands; the 
arrival of the milk is painful and is often accompanied by fever, and 
the breast-feeder feeds the newborn to the detriment of her own 
strength. The conflict between the species and the individual can have 
dramatic consequences in childbirth, making the woman's body 


distressingly fragile. One often hears that women "have bellyaches"; 
true indeed, a hostile element is locked inside them: the species is 
eating away at them. Many of their illnesses are the result not of an 
external infection but of an internal disorder: false metritis occurs 
from a reaction of the uterine lining to an abnormal ovarian excitation; 
if the yellow body persists instead of being reabsorbed after 
menstruation, it provokes salpingitis and endometritis, and so on. 

Woman escapes from the grip of the species by one more difficult 
crisis; between forty-five and fifty, the phenomena of menopause, the 
opposite of those of puberty, occur. Ovarian activity decreases and 
even disappears: this disappearance brings about a vital 
impoverishment of the individual. It is thought that the catabolic 
glands, thyroid and pituitary, attempt to compensate for the ovaries' 
deficiencies; thus alongside the change-of-life depression there are 
phenomena of surges: hot flashes, high blood pressure, nervousness; 
there is sometimes an increase in the sex drive. Some women retain 
fat in their tissues; others acquire male traits. For many there is a new 
endocrine balance. So woman finds herself freed from the servitudes 
of the female; she is not comparable to a eunuch, because her vitality 
is intact; however, she is no longer prey to powers that submerge her: 
she is consistent with herself. It is sometimes said that older women 
form "a third sex"; it is true they are not males, but they are no longer 
female either; and often this physiological autonomy is matched by a 
health, balance, and vigor they did not previously have. 

Overlapping women's specifically sexual differentiations are the 
singularities, more or less the consequences of these differentiations; 
these are the hormonal actions that determine her soma. On average, 
she is smaller than man, lighter; her skeleton is thinner; the pelvis is 
wider, adapted to gestation and birth; her connective tissue retains 
fats, and her forms are rounder than man's; the overall look: 
morphology, skin, hair system, and so on is clearly different in the 
two sexes. Woman has much less muscular force: about two-thirds 
that of man; she has less respiratory capacity: lungs, trachea, and 
larynx are smaller in woman; the difference in the larynx brings about 
that of the voice. Women's specific blood weight is less than men's: 
there is less hemoglobin retention; women are less robust, more apt to 
be anemic. Their pulse rate is quicker, their vascular system is less 
stable: they blush easily. Instability is a striking characteristic of their 


bodies in general; for example, man's calcium metabolism is stable; 
women both retain less calcium salt and eliminate it during 
menstruation and pregnancy; the ovaries seem to have a catabolic 
action concerning calcium; this instability leads to disorders in the 
ovaries and in the thyroid, which is more developed in a woman than 
in a man: and the irregularity of endocrine secretions acts on the 
peripheral nervous system; muscles and nerves are not perfectly 
controlled. More instability and less control make them more 
emotional, which is directly linked to vascular variations: palpitations, 
redness, and so on; and they are thus subject to convulsive attacks: 
tears, nervous laughter, and hysterics. 

Many of these characteristics are due to woman's subordination to 
the species. This is the most striking conclusion of this study: she is 
the most deeply alienated of all the female mammals, and she is the 
one that refuses this alienation the most violently; in no other is the 
subordination of the organism to the reproductive function more 
imperious nor accepted with greater difficulty. Crises of puberty and 
of the menopause, monthly "curse," long and often troubled 
pregnancy, illnesses, and accidents are characteristic of the human 
female: her destiny appears even more fraught the more she rebels 
against it by affirming herself as an individual. The male, by 
comparison, is infinitely more privileged: his genital life does not 
thwart his personal existence; it unfolds seamlessly, without crises 
and generally without accident. Women live, on average, as long as 
men, but are often sick and indisposed. 

These biological data are of extreme importance: they play an all- 
important role and are an essential element of woman's situation: we 
will be referring to them in all further accounts. Because the body is 
the instrument of our hold on the world, the world appears different to 
us depending on how it is grasped, which explains why we have 
studied these data so deeply; they are one of the keys that enable us to 
understand woman. But we refuse the idea that they form a fixed 
destiny for her. They do not suffice to constitute the basis for a sexual 
hierarchy; they do not explain why woman is the Other; they do not 
condemn her forever to this subjugated role. 

It has often been claimed that physiology alone provides answers to 


these questions: Does individual success have the same chances in the 
two sexes? Which of the two in the species plays the greater role? But 
the first question does not apply to woman and other females in the 
same way, because animals constitute given species and it is possible 
to provide static descriptions of them: it is simply a question of 
collating observations to decide if the mare is as quick as the stallion, 
if male chimpanzees do as well on intelligence tests as their female 
counterparts; but humanity is constantly in the making. Materialist 
scholars have claimed to posit the problem in a purely static way; full 
of the theory of psychophysiological parallelism, they sought to make 
mathematical comparisons between male and female organisms: and 
they imagined that these measurements directly defined their 
functional abilities. I will mention one example of these senseless 
discussions that this method prompted. As it was supposed, in some 
mysterious way, that the brain secreted thinking, it seemed very 
important to decide if the average weight of the female brain was 
larger or smaller than that of the male. It was found that the former 
weighs, on average, 1,220 grams, and the latter 1,360, the weight of the 
female brain varying from 1,000 to 1,5 00 grams and that of the male 
from 1,150 to 1,700. But the absolute weight is not significant; it was 
thus decided that the relative weight should be taken into account. It is 
V 48 4 for the man and V 44 2 for the woman. She is thus supposed to 
be advantaged. No. This still has to be corrected: in such 
comparisons, the smallest organism always seems to be favored; to 
compare two individuals correctly while not taking into account the 
body, one must divide the weight of the brain by the power of 0.56 of 
the body weight if they belong to the same species. It is considered 
that men and women are of two different types, with the following 

For man: W 0^6 = 498 1,360 = 1.73 


For woman: W 0*56 = 446 1 ,22.0 = 274 



Equality is the result. But what removes much of the interest of 
these careful debates is that no relation has been established between 
brain weight and the development of intelligence. Nor could one give 
a psychic interpretation of chemical formulas defining male and 
female hormones. We categorically reject the idea of a 
psychophysiological parallelism; the bases of this doctrine have 
definitively and long been weakened. I mention it because although it 
is philosophically and scientifically ruined, it still haunts a large 
number of minds: it has already been shown here that some people are 
carrying around antique vestiges of it. We also repudiate any frame of 
reference that presupposes the existence of a natural hierarchy of 
values — for example, that of an evolutionary hierarchy; it is pointless 
to wonder if the female body is more infantile than the male, if it is 
closer to or further from that of the higher primates, and so forth. All 
these studies that confuse a vague naturalism with an even vaguer 
ethic or aesthetic are pure verbiage. Only within a human perspective 
can the female and the male be compared in the human species. But 
the definition of man is that he is a being who is not given, who 
makes himself what he is. As Merleau-Ponty rightly said, man is not 
a natural species: he is a historical idea. Woman is not a fixed reality 
but a becoming; she has to be compared with man in her becoming; 
that is, her possibilities have to be defined: what skews the issues so 
much is that she is being reduced to what she was, to what she is 
today, while the question concerns her capacities; the fact is that her 
capacities manifest themselves clearly only when they have been 
realized: but the fact is also that when one considers a being who is 
transcendence and surpassing, it is never possible to close the books. 

However, one might say, in the position I adopt — that of 
Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty — that if the body is not a thing, 
it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and the outline for our 
projects. Woman is weaker than man; she has less muscular strength, 
fewer red blood cells, a lesser respiratory capacity; she runs less 
quickly, lifts less heavy weights — there is practically no sport in 
which she can compete with him; she cannot enter into a fight with the 
male. Added to that are the instability, lack of control, and fragility 
that have been discussed: these are facts. Her grasp of the world is 
thus more limited; she has less firmness and perseverance in projects 
that she is also less able to carry out. This means that her individual 


life is not as rich as man's. 

In truth these facts cannot be denied: but they do not carry their 
meaning in themselves. As soon as we accept a human perspective, 
defining the body starting from existence, biology becomes an 
abstract science; when the physiological given (muscular inferiority) 
takes on meaning, this meaning immediately becomes dependent on a 
whole context; "weakness" is weakness only in light of the aims man 
sets for himself, the instruments at his disposal, and the laws he 
imposes. If he did not want to apprehend the world, the very idea of a 
grasp on things would have no meaning; when, in this apprehension, 
the full use of body force — above the usable minimum — is not 
required, the differences cancel each other out; where customs forbid 
violence, muscular energy cannot be the basis for domination: 
existential, economic, and moral reference points are necessary to 
define the notion of weakness concretely. It has been said that the 
human species was an anti-physis; the expression is not really exact, 
because man cannot possibly contradict the given; but it is in how he 
takes it on that he constitutes its truth; nature only has reality for him 
insofar as it is taken on by his action: his own nature is no exception. 
It is not possible to measure in the abstract the burden of the 
generative function for woman, just as it is not possible to measure 
her grasp on the world: the relation of maternity to individual life is 
naturally regulated in animals by the cycle of heat and seasons; it is 
undefined for woman; only society can decide; woman's enslavement 
to the species is tighter or looser depending on how many births the 
society demands and the hygienic conditions in which pregnancy and 
birth occur. So if it can be said that among the higher animals 
individual existence is affirmed more imperiously in the male than in 
the female, in humanity individual "possibilities" depend on the 
economic and social situation. 

In any case, it is not always true that the male's individual 
privileges confer upon him superiority in the species; the female 
regains another kind of autonomy in maternity. Sometimes he 
imposes his domination: this is the case in the monkeys studied by 
Zuckerman; but often the two halves of the couple lead separate lives; 
the lion and the lioness share the care of the habitat equally. Here 
again, the case of the human species cannot be reduced to any other; 
men do not define themselves first as individuals; men and women 


have never challenged each other in individual fights; the couple is an 
original Mitsein; and it is always a fixed or transitory element of a 
wider collectivity; within these societies, who, the male or the female, 
is the more necessary for the species? In terms of gametes, in terms of 
the biological functions of coitus and gestation, the male principle 
creates to maintain and the female principle maintains to create: What 
becomes of this division in social life? For species attached to foreign 
bodies or to the substrata, for those to whom nature grants food 
abundantly and effortlessly, the role of the male is limited to 
fertilization; when it is necessary to search, chase, or fight to provide 
food needed for offspring, the male often helps with their 
maintenance; this help becomes absolutely indispensable in a species 
where children remain incapable of taking care of their own needs for 
a long period after the mother stops nursing them: the male's work 
then takes on an extreme importance; the lives he brought forth could 
not maintain themselves without him. One male is enough to fertilize 
many females each year: but males are necessary for the survival of 
children after birth, to defend them against enemies, to extract from 
nature everything they need. The balance of productive and 
reproductive forces is different depending on the different economic 
moments of human history, and they condition the relation of the male 
and the female to children and later among them. But we are going 
beyond the field of biology: in purely biological terms, it would not be 
possible to posit the primacy of one sex concerning the role it plays in 
perpetuating the species. 

But a society is not a species: the species realizes itself as existence 
in a society; it transcends itself toward the world and the future; its 
customs cannot be deduced from biology; individuals are never left to 
their nature; they obey this second nature, that is, customs in which 
the desires and fears that express their ontological attitude are 
reflected. It is not as a body but as a body subjected to taboos and 
laws that the subject gains consciousness of and accomplishes 
himself. He valorizes himself in the name of certain values. And once 
again, physiology cannot ground values: rather, biological data take 
on those values the existent confers on them. If the respect or fear 
woman inspires prohibits man from using violence against her, the 
male's muscular superiority is not a source of power. If customs 
desire — as in some Indian tribes — that girls choose husbands, or if it 


is the father who decides on marriages, the male's sexual 
aggressiveness does not grant him any initiative, any privilege. The 
mother's intimate link to the child will be a source of dignity or 
indignity for her, depending on the very variable value given to the 
child; this very link, as has already been said, will be recognized or 
not according to social biases. 

Thus we will clarify the biological data by examining them in the 
light of ontological economic, social, and psychological contexts. 
Woman's enslavement to the species and the Umits of her individual 
abilities are facts of extreme importance; the woman's body is one of 
the essential elements of the situation she occupies in this world. But 
her body is not enough to define her; it has a lived reality only as 
taken on by consciousness through actions and within a society; 
biology alone cannot provide an answer to the question that concerns 
us: why is woman the Otherl The question is how, in her, nature has 
been taken on in the course of history; the question is what humanity 
has made of the human female. 

1 . Gametes are reproductive cells whose fusion produces an egg. 

2. Gonads are glands that produce gametes. 

3. Hegel, The Philosophy of Nature, Part 3, Section 369. 
4. Ibid. 

* Bonellia viridis is a sandworm that has no sex chromosomes. — TRANS. 

5. Some chickens fight in the barnyard for a pecking order. Cows too become head of 
the herd if there are no males. 

6. The analysis of these phenomena has been advanced in the last few years by 
comparing the phenomena occurring in women with those in the higher monkeys, 
especially for the Rh factor. "It is obviously easier to experiment on the latter 
animals," writes Louis Gallien (La sexualite [Sexual Reproduction]). 

7. "I am thus my body, at least inasmuch as I have experience, and reciprocally, my 
body is like a natural subject, like a tentative draft of my total being" (Merleau-Ponty, 
Phenomenology of Perception). 

8. I am taking here an exclusively physiological point of view. It is evident that 
maternity can be very advantageous psychologically for a woman, just as it can also be 
a disaster. 

9. Cf. H. Vignes in Traite de physiologie normale et pathologique (Treatise on Normal 


and Pathological Physiology), Volume 1 1 , edited by Roger and Binet. 



The Psychoanalytical Point of View 

The enormous advance psychoanalysis made over psychophysiology 
is in its consideration that no factor intervenes in psychic life without 
having taken on human meaning; it is not the body-object described 
by scientists that exists concretely but the body lived by the subject. 
The female is a woman, insofar as she feels herself as such. Some 
essential biological givens are not part of her lived situation: for 
example, the structure of the ovum is not reflected in it; by contrast, an 
organ of slight biological importance like the clitoris plays a primary 
role in it. Nature does not define woman: it is she who defines herself 
by reclaiming nature for herself in her affectivity. 

An entire system has been erected based on this outlook: we do not 
intend here to criticize it as a whole, but only to examine its 
contribution to the study of woman. Discussing psychoanalysis as 
such is not an easy undertaking. Like all religions — Christianity or 
Marxism — it displays an unsettling flexibility against a background of 
rigid concepts. Sometimes words are taken in their narrowest 
meanings, the term "phallus," for example, designating very precisely 
the fleshy growth that is the male sex organ; at other times, infinitely 
broadened, they take on a symbolic value: the phallus would express 
all of the virile character and situation as a whole. If one criticizes the 
doctrine to the letter, the psychoanalyst maintains that its spirit has 
been misunderstood; if one approves of the spirit, he immediately 
wants to limit you to the letter. The doctrine is unimportant, he says: 
psychoanalysis is a method; but the success of the method strengthens 
the doctrinaire in his faith. After all, where would the true features of 
psychoanalysis be found if not with psychoanalysts themselves? But 
among them, as among Christians and Marxists, there are heretics: 
more than one psychoanalyst has declared that "the worst enemies of 
psychoanalysis are psychoanalysts themselves." Many ambiguities 
remain to be dissolved, in spite of an often-pedantic scholastic 


precision. As Sartre and Merleau-Ponty have observed, the 
proposition "sexuality is coextensive with existence" can be 
understood in two very different ways; it could mean that every avatar 
of the existent has a sexual signification, or that every sexual 
phenomenon has an existential meaning: these two affirmations can be 
reconciled; but often one tends to slip from one to the other. Besides, 
as soon as "sexual" and "genital" are distinguished, the notion of 
sexuality becomes blurred. "The sexual for Freud is the intrinsic 
aptitude to trigger the genital," says Dalbiez.* But nothing is murkier 
than the notion of "aptitude," or of possibility: only reality can 
indubitably prove possibility. Not being a philosopher, Freud refused 
to justify his system philosophically; his disciples maintain that he 
thus eludes any attacks of a metaphysical sort. There are, however, 
metaphysical postulates behind all of his affirmations: to use his 
language is to adopt a philosophy. It is this very confusion that, while 
making criticism awkward, demands it. 

Freud was not very concerned with woman's destiny; it is clear that 
he modeled his description of it on that of masculine destiny, merely 
modifying some of the traits. Before him, the sexologist Maranon had 
declared: "As differentiated energy, the libido is, one might say, a 
force of virile significance. We can say as much for the orgasm." 
According to him, women who attain orgasm are "viriloid" women; 
sexual fulfillment is a "one-way street" and woman is only at the 
halfway point. 1 Freud does not go that far; he accepts that woman's 
sexuality is as developed as man's; but he barely studies it in itself. 
He writes: "The libido is constantly and regularly male in essence, 
whether in man or in woman." He refuses to posit the feminine libido 
in its originality: he will thus necessarily see it as a complex deviation 
from the human libido in general. And this, he thinks, develops first 
identically in both sexes: all children go through an oral phase that 
fixes them upon their mother's breast, then an anal phase, and finally 
the genital phase; it is then that they become differentiated. Freud 
brought out a fact whose importance had not previously been 
recognized: male eroticism is definitively centered on the penis, while 
the woman has two distinct erotic systems, one that is clitoral and 
develops in infancy and another that is vaginal and develops only after 
puberty; when the boy gets to the genital phase, he completes his 
development; he has to move from the autoerotic attitude, where 


subjective pleasure is sought, to a hetero-erotic attitude that will link 
pleasure to an object, usually a woman; this passage will occur at 
puberty through a narcissistic phase: but the penis will remain, as in 
infancy, the favored erotic organ. Woman, also passing through a 
narcissistic phase, must make man the object of her libido; but the 
process will be far more complex as she must pass from clitoral to 
vaginal pleasure. There is but one genital step for man, while there are 
two for woman; she runs a greater risk of not completing her sexual 
development, and of remaining at the infantile stage, and consequently 
of developing neuroses. 

At the autoerotic stage, the child is already more or less strongly 
attached to an object: a boy is fixated on his mother and wants to 
identify with his father; he is afraid of this ambition and fears that his 
father will punish him for it by mutilating him; the castration complex 
emanates from the Oedipus complex; so he develops aggressive 
feelings toward his father, while at the same time interiorizing his 
father's authority: thus develops the superego that censures 
incestuous tendencies; these tendencies are repressed, the complex is 
liquidated, and the son is freed from the father, whom he in fact has 
installed in himself in the form of moral precepts. The more defined 
and strongly fought the Oedipus complex is, the stronger the 
superego. Freud first described the history of the girl in a completely 
symmetrical way; later he named the feminine form of the infant 
complex the Electra complex; but clearly he defined it less in itself 
than based on a masculine model; yet he accepts a very important 
difference between the two: the little girl first has a maternal fixation, 
while the boy is at no time sexually attracted by the father; this 
fixation is a carryover from the oral phase; the infant then identifies 
with the father; but around the age of five, she discovers the 
anatomical difference between the sexes, and she reacts to the absence 
of a penis by a castration complex: she imagines having been 
mutilated, and suffers from it; she must therefore renounce her virile 
pretensions; she identifies with her mother and tries to seduce her 
father. The castration complex and the Electra complex reinforce each 
other; the feeling of frustration for girls is all the more painful as, 
loving her father, the girl would like to resemble him; and inversely 
regret strengthens her love: through the tenderness she inspires in her 
father, she can compensate for her inferiority. The girl experiences 


feelings of rivalry and hostility toward her mother. Then her superego 
is constituted as well, repressing her incestuous tendencies; but her 
superego is more fragile: the Electra complex is less clear than the 
Oedipus complex, because her first fixation was maternal; and since 
the father was himself the object of this love that he condemned, his 
prohibitions had less force than in the case of the rival son. It can be 
seen that, as with her genital development, the little girl's overall 
sexual drama is more complex than her brother's: she might be 
tempted to react to the castration complex by rejecting her femininity, 
obstinately coveting a penis, and identifying with her father; this 
attitude will lead her to remain at the clitoral stage, to become frigid, or 
to turn to homosexuality. 

The two essential objections to this description stem from the fact 
that Freud copied it from a masculine model. He assumes that a 
woman feels like a mutilated man; but the notion of mutilation implies 
comparison and valorization; many psychoanalysts accept today that 
girls miss having a penis without assuming they were ever stripped of 
one; this regret is not even generalized among all girls; and it could 
not arise from a simple anatomical encounter; many little girls 
discover the masculine constitution very late; and if they do discover 
it, it is only by seeing it; the boy has a living experience from his 
penis that allows him to take pride in it, but this pride has no 
immediate correlation with the humiliation of his sisters since they 
only know the masculine organ in its exteriority; this growth, this 
delicate stalk of skin, can only inspire their indifference and even 
disgust; the girl's envy, when it appears, is the result of a prior 
valorization of virility: Freud takes this for granted when instead he 
should account for it. 2 Besides, because there is no original 
description of the feminine libido, the notion of the Electra complex is 
very vague. Even the presence of a specifically genital Oedipus 
complex in boys is by no means general; but, apart from very rare 
exceptions, it cannot be stated that the father is a source of genital 
excitation for his daughter; one of the great problems of female 
eroticism is that clitoral pleasure is localized: it is only in puberty, in 
connection with vaginal eroticism, that many erogenous zones 
develop in the woman's body; to say that in a child of ten a father's 
kisses and caresses have an "intrinsic aptitude" to arouse clitoral 
pleasure is an assertion that in most cases makes no sense. If it is 


accepted that the "Electra complex" has only a very diffuse and 
affective nature, then the whole question of affectivity is raised, a 
question that Freudianism does not provide the means to define, once 
it is distinguished from sexuality. In any case, it is not the feminine 
libido that deifies the father: the mother is not deified by the desire she 
arouses in her son; the fact that feminine desire is focused on a 
sovereign being gives it a unique character; but the girl is not 
constitutive of her object, she submits to it. The father's sovereignty is 
a fact of social order: Freud fails to account for this; he himself admits 
that it is impossible to know what authority decided at what moment 
in history that the father would prevail over the mother: according to 
him, this decision represents progress, but its causes are unknown. 
"[In this case] it cannot be the father himself, since it is only this 
progress that raises him to the rank of an authority," he writes in his 
last work. 3 

Adler departed from Freud because he understood the inadequacies 
of a system that bases the development of human life on sexuality 
alone: he means to reintegrate sexuality into the total personality; 
while for Freud all behavior is driven by desire, that is, by seeking 
pleasure, Adler sees man as aiming at certain goals; he replaces drives 
with motives, finality, and plans; he raises intelligence to such heights 
that for him sexuality often has only symbolic value. According to his 
theories, the human drama is divided into three steps: each individual 
has a will to power but along with it an inferiority complex; this 
conflict leads him to use countless ruses rather than confront real-life 
obstacles that he fears may be insurmountable; the subject establishes 
a distance between himself and the society he fears: thus develop 
neuroses that are disturbances of the social sense. As for woman, her 
inferiority complex manifests itself in a rejection out of shame of her 
femininity: it is not the absence of a penis that unleashes this complex 
but the total situation; the girl envies the phallus only as a symbol of 
the privileges granted to boys; the father's place in the family, the 
universal predominance of males, and upbringing all confirm her idea 
of masculine superiority. Later, in the course of sexual relations, even 
the coital posture that places the woman underneath the man is an 
added humiliation. She reacts by a "masculine protest"; she either tries 
to masculinize herself or uses her feminine wiles to go into battle 
against man. Through motherhood she can find in her child the 


equivalent of the penis. But this supposes that she must first accept 
herself completely as woman, and thus accept her inferiority. She is 
far more deeply divided against herself than is man. 

It is unnecessary to underline here the theoretical differences 
between Adler and Freud or the possibilities of reconciliation: neither 
the explanation based on drive nor the one based on motive is ever 
sufficient: all drives posit a motive, but motive is never grasped except 
through drives; a synthesis of Adlerism and Freudianism thus seems 
possible. In fact, while bringing in notions of aim and finality, Adler 
retains in full the idea of psychic causality; his relation to Freud 
resembles somewhat the relation of energeticism to mechanism: 
whether it is a question of impact or force of attraction, the physicist 
always recognizes determinism. This is the postulate common to all 
psychoanalysts: for them, human history is explained by an interplay 
of determined elements. They all allot the same destiny to woman. Her 
drama is summed up in a conflict between her "viriloid" and her 
"feminine" tendencies; the former are expressed in the clitoral system, 
the latter in vaginal eroticism; as a very young girl, she identifies with 
her father; she then experiences feelings of inferiority relative to man 
and is faced with the alternative of either maintaining her autonomy, 
becoming virilized — which, with an underlying inferiority complex, 
provokes a tension that risks bringing on neuroses — or else finding 
happy self-fulfillment in amorous submission, a solution facilitated by 
the love she felt for her sovereign father; it is he whom she is looking 
for in her lover or husband, and her sexual love is mingled with her 
desire to be dominated. Maternity will be her reward, restoring to her 
a new kind of autonomy. This drama seems to be endowed with its 
own dynamism; it continues to work itself out through all the mishaps 
that distort it, and every woman passively endures it. 

Psychoanalysts have no trouble finding empirical confirmations of 
their theories: it is known that if Ptolemy's system is subtly 
complicated, his version of the position of the planets could be upheld 
for a long time; if an inverse Oedipus complex is superimposed onto 
the Oedipus complex and by showing a desire in every anxiety, the 
very facts that contradicted Freudianism will be successfully 
integrated into it. For a figure to be perceived, it must stand out from 
its background, and how the figure is perceived brings out the ground 
behind it in positive delineation; thus if one is determined to describe a 


particular case from a Freudian perspective, one will find the Freudian 
schema as the background behind it; but when a doctrine demands the 
multiplication of secondary explanations in an indefinite and arbitrary 
way, when observation uncovers as many anomalies as normal cases, 
it is better to give up the old frameworks. Today as well, every 
psychoanalyst works at adapting Freudian concepts to suit himself; he 
attempts compromises; for example, a contemporary psychoanalyst 
writes: "Whenever there is a complex, there are by definition several 
components ... The complex consists in grouping these disparate 
elements and not in representing one of them by the others." 4 But the 
idea of a simple grouping of elements is unacceptable: psychic life is 
not a mosaic; it is altogether complete in every one of its moments, 
and this unity must be respected. This is possible only by recovering 
the original intentionality of existence through the disparate facts. 
Without going back to this source, man appears a battlefield of drives 
and prohibitions equally devoid of meaning and contingent. All 
psychoanalysts systematically refuse the idea of choice and its 
corollary, the notion of value; and herein lies the intrinsic weakness of 
the system. Cutting out drives and prohibitions from existential 
choice, Freud fails to explain their origin: he takes them as givens. He 
tried to replace the notion of value with that of authority; but he admits 
in Moses and Monotheism that he has no way to account for this 
authority. Incest, for example, is forbidden because the father forbade 
it: But why did he forbid it? It is a mystery. The superego interiorizes 
orders and prohibitions emanating from an arbitrary tyranny; 
instinctive tendencies exist, but we do not know why; these two 
realities are heterogeneous because morality is posited as foreign to 
sexuality; human unity appears as shattered, there is no passage from 
the individual to the society: Freud is forced to invent strange fictions 
to reunite them. 5 Adler saw clearly that the castration complex could 
be explained only in a social context; he approached the problem of 
valorization, but he did not go back to the ontological source of values 
recognized by society, and he did not understand that values were 
involved in sexuality itself, which led him to misunderstand their 

Sexuality certainly plays a considerable role in human life: it could 
be said to penetrate it completely; physiology has already 
demonstrated how the activity of testes and ovaries is intermixed with 


that of the soma. The existent is a sexed body; in its relations with 
other existents that are also sexed bodies, sexuality is thus always 
involved; but as the body and sexuality are concrete expressions of 
existence, it is also from here that their significance can be ascertained: 
without this perspective, psychoanalysis takes unexplained facts for 
granted. For example, a young girl is said to be "ashamed" of 
urinating in a squatting position, with her bottom exposed; but what is 
shame? Likewise, before asking if the male is proud because he has a 
penis or if his penis is the expression of his pride, we need to know 
what pride is and how the subject's aspirations can be embodied in an 
object. Sexuality must not be taken as an irreducible given; the 
existent possesses a more primary "quest for being"; sexuality is only 
one of these aspects. Sartre demonstrates this in Being and 
Nothingness; Bachelard also says it in his works on Earth, Air, and 
Water: psychoanalysts believe that man's quintessential truth lies in 
his relation to his own body and that of others like him within society; 
but man has a primordial interest in the substance of the natural world 
surrounding him that he attempts to discover in work, play, and all 
experiences of the "dynamic imagination"; man seeks to connect 
concretely with existence through the whole world, grasped in all 
possible ways. Working the soil and digging a hole are activities as 
primal as an embrace or coitus: it is an error to see them only as 
sexual symbols; a hole, slime, a gash, hardness, and wholeness are 
primary realities; man's interest in them is not dictated by libido; 
instead, the libido will be influenced by the way these realities were 
revealed to him. Man is not fascinated by wholeness because it 
symbolizes feminine virginity: rather, his love for wholeness makes 
virginity precious. Work, war, play, and art define ways of being in 
the world that cannot be reduced to any others; they bring to light 
features that impinge on those that sexuality reveals; it is both through 
them and through these erotic experiences that the individual chooses 
himself. But only an ontological point of view can restore the unity of 
this choice. 

Psychoanalysts vehemently reject this notion of choice in the name 
of determinism and "the collective unconscious"; this unconscious 
would provide man with ready-made imagery and universal 
symbolism; it would explain analogies found in dreams, lapses, 
delusions, allegories, and human destinies; to speak of freedom would 


be to reject the possibility of explaining these disturbing 
concordances. But the idea of freedom is not incompatible with the 
existence of certain constants. If the psychoanalytical method is often 
productive in spite of errors in theory, it is because there are givens in 
every individual case so generalized that no one would dream of 
denying them: situations and behavior patterns recur; the moment of 
decision springs out of generality and repetition. "Anatomy is 
destiny," said Freud; and this phrase is echoed by Merleau-Ponty: 
"The body is generality." Existence is one, across and through the 
separation of existents, manifesting itself in analogous organisms; so 
there will be constants in the relationship between the ontological and 
the sexual. At any given period, technology and the economic and 
social structure of a group reveal an identical world for all its 
members: there will also be a constant relation of sexuality to social 
forms; analogous individuals, placed in analogous conditions, will 
grasp analogous significations in the given; this analogy is not the 
basis of a rigorous universality, but it can account for finding general 
types in individual cases. A symbol does not emerge as an allegory 
worked out by a mysterious unconscious: it is the apprehension of a 
signification through an analogue of the signifying object; because of 
the identity of the existential situation cutting across all existents and 
the identity of the facticity they have to cope with, significations are 
revealed to many individuals in the same way; symbolism did not fall 
out of heaven or rise out of subterranean depths: it was elaborated like 
language, by the human reality that is at once Mitsein and separation; 
and this explains that singular invention also has its place: in practice 
the psychoanalytical method must accept this whether or not doctrine 
authorizes it. This approach enables us to understand, for example, the 
value generally given to the penis. 6 It is impossible to account for this 
without starting from an existential fact: the subject's tendency toward 
alienation; the anxiety of his freedom leads the subject to search for 
himself in things, which is a way to flee from himself; it is so 
fundamental a tendency that as soon as he is weaned and separated 
from the Whole, the infant endeavors to grasp his alienated existence 
in the mirror, in his parents' gaze. Primitive people alienate 
themselves in their mana, their totem; civilized people in their 
individual souls, their egos, their names, their possessions, and their 
work: here is the first temptation of inauthenticity. The penis is 


singularly adapted to play this role of "double" for the little boy: for 
him it is both a foreign object and himself; it is a plaything, a doll, and 
it is his own flesh; parents and nurses treat it like a little person. So, 
clearly, it becomes for the child "an alter ego usually craftier, more 
intelligent, and more clever than the individual"; 7 because the urinary 
function and later the erection are midway between voluntary 
processes and spontaneous processes, because it is the impulsive, 
quasi-foreign source of subjectively experienced pleasure, the penis is 
posited by the subject as himself and other than himself; specific 
transcendence is embodied in it in a graspable way, and it is a source 
of pride; because the phallus is set apart, man can integrate into his 
personality the life that flows from it. This is why, then, the length of 
the penis, the force of the urine stream, the erection, and the 
ejaculation become for him the measure of his own worth. 8 It is thus a 
constant that the phallus is the fleshly incarnation of transcendence; 
since it is also a constant that the child feels transcended, that is, 
frustrated in his transcendence by his father, the Freudian idea of the 
castration complex will persist. Deprived of this alter ego, the little girl 
does not alienate herself in a graspable thing, does not reclaim herself: 
she is thus led to make her entire self an object, to posit herself as the 
Other; the question of knowing whether or not she has compared 
herself with boys is secondary; what is important is that, even without 
her knowing it, the absence of a penis keeps her from being aware of 
herself as a sex; many consequences result from this. But these 
constants we point out nevertheless do not define a destiny: the 
phallus takes on such importance because it symbolizes a sovereignty 
that is realized in other areas. If woman succeeded in affirming herself 
as subject, she would invent equivalents of the phallus: the doll that 
embodies the promise of the child may become a more precious 
possession than a penis. 9 There are matrilineal societies where the 
women possess the masks in which the collectivity alienates itself; the 
penis then loses much of its glory. Only within the situation grasped 
in its totality does anatomical privilege found a truly human privilege. 
Psychoanalysis could only find its truth within a historical context. 

Likewise, woman can no more be defined by the consciousness of 
her own femininity than by merely saying that woman is a female: she 
finds this consciousness within the society of which she is a member. 
Interiorizing the unconscious and all psychic life, the very language of 


psychoanalysis suggests that the drama of the individual unfolds 
within him: the terms "complex," "tendencies," and so forth imply 
this. But a life is a relation with the world; the individual defines 
himself by choosing himself through the world; we must turn to the 
world to answer the questions that preoccupy us. In particular, 
psychoanalysis fails to explain why woman is the Other. Even Freud 
accepts that the prestige of the penis is explained by the father's 
sovereignty, and he admits that he does not know the source of male 

Without wholly rejecting the contributions of psychoanalysis, some 
of which are productive, we will nevertheless not accept its method. 
First of all, we will not limit ourselves to taking sexuality as a given: 
that this view falls short is demonstrated by the poverty of the 
descriptions touching on the feminine libido; I have already said that 
psychoanalysts have never studied it head-on, but only based on the 
male libido; they seem to ignore the fundamental ambivalence of the 
attraction that the male exercises over the female. Freudians and 
Adlerians explain woman's anxiety before male genitalia as an 
inversion of frustrated desire. Stekel rightly saw this as an original 
reaction; but he accounts for it only superficially: the woman would 
fear defloration, penetration, pregnancy, and pain, and this fear would 
stifle her desire; this explanation is too rational* Instead of accepting 
that desire is disguised as anxiety or is overcome by fear, we should 
consider this sort of pressing and frightened appeal that is female 
desire as a basic given; it is characterized by the indissoluble synthesis 
of attraction and repulsion. It is noteworthy that many female animals 
flee from coitus at the very moment they solicit it: they are accused of 
coquetry or hypocrisy; but it is absurd to attempt to explain primitive 
behaviors by assimilating them to complex ones: they are, on the 
contrary, at the source of attitudes called coquetry and hypocrisy in 
women. The idea of a passive libido is disconcerting because the 
libido has been defined as a drive, as energy based on the male; but 
one could no more conceive a priori of a light being both yellow and 
blue: the intuition of green is needed. Reality would be better 
delineated if, instead of defining the libido in vague terms of "energy," 
the significance of sexuality were juxtaposed with that of other human 
attitudes: taking, catching, eating, doing, undergoing, and so on; for 
sexuality is one of the singular modes of apprehending an object; the 


characteristics of the erotic object as it is shown not only in the sexual 
act but in perception in general would also have to be studied. This 
examination goes beyond the psychoanalytical framework that posits 
eroticism as irreducible. 

In addition, we will pose the problem of feminine destiny quite 
differently: we will situate woman in a world of values, and we will 
lend her behavior a dimension of freedom. We think she has to 
choose between the affirmation of her transcendence and her 
alienation as object; she is not the plaything of contradictory drives; 
she devises solutions that have an ethical hierarchy among them. 
Replacing value with authority, choice with drives, psychoanalysis 
proposes an ersatz morality: the idea of normality. This idea is indeed 
highly useful from a therapeutic point of view; but it has reached a 
disturbing extent in psychoanalysis in general. The descriptive schema 
is proposed as a law; and assuredly, a mechanistic psychology could 
not accept the notion of moral invention; at best it can recognize less 
but never more; at best it acknowledges failures, but never creations. 
If a subject does not wholly replicate a development considered 
normal, his development will be seen as being interrupted, and this 
will be interpreted as a lack and a negation and never a positive 
decision. That, among other things, is what renders the 
psychoanalysis of great men so shocking: we are told that this 
transference or that sublimation was not successfully carried out in 
them; it is never supposed that perhaps they could have rejected it, and 
perhaps for good reasons; it is never considered that their behavior 
might have been motivated by freely posited aims; the individual is 
always explained through his link to the past and not with respect to a 
future toward which he projects himself. Therefore, we are never 
given more than an inauthentic picture, and in this inauthenticity no 
criterion other than normality can possibly be found. The description 
of feminine destiny is, from this point of view, altogether striking. 
The way psychoanalysts understand it, "to identify" with the mother 
or the father is to alienate oneself m a model, it is to prefer a foreign 
image to a spontaneous movement of one's own existence, it is to 
play at being. We are shown woman solicited by two kinds of 
alienations; it is very clear that to play at being a man will be a recipe 
for failure; but to play at being a woman is also a trap: being a woman 
would mean being an object, the Other; and at the heart of its 


abdication, the Other remains a subject. The real problem for the 
woman refusing these evasions is to accomplish herself as 
transcendence: this means seeing which possibilities are opened to her 
by what are called virile and feminine attitudes; when a child follows 
the path indicated by one or another of his parents, it could be because 
he freely takes on their projects: his behavior could be the result of a 
choice motivated by ends. Even for Adler, the will to power is only a 
sort of absurd energy; he calls any project that incarnates 
transcendence a "masculine protest"; when a girl climbs trees, it is, 
according to him, to be the equal of boys: he does not imagine that she 
likes to climb trees; for the mother, the child is anything but a "penis 
substitute"; painting, writing, and engaging in politics are not only 
"good sublimations": they are ends desired in themselves. To deny 
this is to falsify all of human history. Parallels can be noted between 
our descriptions and those of psychoanalysts. From man's point of 
view — adopted by both male and female psychoanalysts — behavior of 
alienation is considered feminine, and behavior where the subject 
posits his transcendence is considered masculine. Donaldson, a 
historian of woman, observed that the definitions "the man is a male 
human being, the woman is a female human being" were 
asymmetrically mutilated;* psychoanalysts in particular define man as 
a human being and woman as a female: every time she acts like a 
human being, the woman is said to be imitating the male. The 
psychoanalyst describes the child and the young girl as required to 
identify with the father and the mother, torn between "viriloid" and 
"feminine" tendencies, whereas we conceive her as hesitating between 
the role of object, of Other that is proposed to her and her claim for 
freedom; thus it is possible to agree on certain points: in particular 
when we consider the paths of inauthentic flight offered to women. 
But we do not give them the same Freudian or Adlerian signification. 
For us woman is defined as a human being in search of values within 
a world of values, a world where it is indispensable to understand the 
economic and social structure; we will study her from an existential 
point of view, taking into account her total situation. 

* La methode psychanalytique et la doctrine freudienne (Psychoanalytical Method 
and the Doctrine of Freud). — TRANS. 


1. Curiously, this theory is found in D. H. Lawrence. In The Plumed Serpent, Don 
Cipriano sees to it that his mistress never reaches orgasm: she must vibrate along with 
the man, and not find individualized pleasure. 

2. This discussion will be taken up again in more detail in Volume II, Chapter 12. 

3 . Cf. Moses and Monotheism. 

4. Baudouin,i 'time enfantine et la psychanalyse (The Child's Soul and 

5. Freud, Totem and Taboo. 

6. We will come back to this subject in more detail in Volume II, Chapter 1 

7. Alice Balint, The Psychoanalysis of the Nursery . 

8. The case of little peasant boys who entertain themselves by having excrement 
contests has been brought to my attention: the one producing the biggest and most 
solid feces enjoys a prestige that no other success, in games or even in fighting, could 
replace. Fecal matter here played the same role as the penis: it was a matter of 
alienation in both cases. 

9. We will come back to these ideas in Part Two; mention is made here for the sake of 

* Stekel, Frigidity in Woman, which was published in French translation by Gallimard 
in 1937.— TRANS. 

* Sir James Donaldson, Woman, Her Position and Influence in Ancient Greece and 
Rome, and Among the Early Christians . — TRANS. 



The Point of View of Historical Materialism 

The theory of historical materialism has brought to light some very 
important truths. Humanity is not an animal species: it is a historical 
reality. Human society is an anti-physis: it does not passively submit 
to the presence of nature, but rather appropriates it. This appropriation 
is not an interior, subjective operation: it is carried out objectively in 
praxis. Thus woman cannot simply be considered a sexed organism: 
among biological data, only those with concrete value in action have 
any importance; woman's consciousness of herself is not defined by 
her sexuality alone: it reflects a situation that depends on society's 
economic structure, a structure that indicates the degree of technical 
evolution humanity has attained. We have seen that two essential traits 
characterize woman biologically: her grasp on the world is narrower 
than man's; and she is more closely subjugated to the species. But 
these facts have a totally different value depending on the economic 
and social context. Throughout human history, grasp on the world is 
not defined by the naked body: the hand, with its prehensile thumb, 
moves beyond itself toward instruments that increase its power; from 
prehistory's earliest documents, man is always seen as armed. In the 
past, when it was a question of carrying heavy clubs and of keeping 
wild beasts at bay, woman's physical weakness constituted a flagrant 
inferiority: if the instrument requires slightly more strength than the 
woman can muster, it is enough to make her seem radically 
powerless. But on the other hand, technical developments can cancel 
out the muscular inequality separating man and woman: abundance 
only creates superiority relative to a need; having too much is not 
better than having enough. Thus operating many modern machines 
requires only a part of masculine resources; if the necessary minimum 
is not superior to woman's capacities, she becomes man's work 
equal. Today enormous deployments of energy can be commanded at 
the touch of a switch. The burdens that come with maternity vary 


greatly depending on customs: they are overwhelming if numerous 
pregnancies are imposed on the woman and if she must feed and raise 
her children without help; if she procreates as she wishes and if 
society helps her during her pregnancies and provides child care, 
maternal duties are lighter and can be easily compensated for in the 
realm of work. 

Engels retraces woman's history from this point of view in The 
Origin of the Family; to him, this history depends essentially on the 
history of technology. In the Stone Age, when the land belonged to all 
members of the clan, the rudimentary nature of the primitive spade 
and hoe limited agricultural possibilities: feminine strength was at the 
level of work needed for gardening. In this primitive division of labor, 
the two sexes already constitute two classes in a way; there is equality 
between these classes; while the man hunts and fishes, the woman 
stays at home; but the domestic tasks include productive work: pottery 
making, weaving, gardening; and in this way, she has an important 
role in economic life. With the discovery of copper, tin, bronze, and 
iron, and with the advent of the plow, agriculture expands its reach: 
intensive labor is necessary to clear the forests and cultivate the fields. 
So man has recourse to the service of other men, reducing them to 
slavery. Private property appears: master of slaves and land, man also 
becomes the proprietor of the woman. This is the "great historical 
defeat of the female sex." It is explained by the disruption of the 
division of labor brought about by the invention of new tools. "The 
same cause that had assured woman her previous authority in the 
home, her restriction to housework, this same cause now assured the 
domination of the man; domestic work thence faded in importance 
next to man's productive work; the latter was everything, the former 
an insignificant addition." So paternal right replaces maternal right: 
transmission of property is from father to son and no longer from 
woman to her clan. This is the advent of the patriarchal family 
founded on private property. In such a family woman is oppressed. 
Man reigning sovereign permits himself, among other things, his 
sexual whims: he sleeps with slaves or courtesans, he is polygamous. 
As soon as customs make reciprocity possible, woman takes revenge 
through infidelity: adultery becomes a natural part of marriage. This is 
the only defense woman has against the domestic slavery she is 
bound to: her social oppression is the consequence of her economic 


oppression. Equality can only be reestablished when both sexes have 
equal legal rights; but this enfranchisement demands that the whole of 
the feminine sex enter public industry. "Woman cannot be 
emancipated unless she takes part in production on a large social scale 
and is only incidentally bound to domestic work. And this has 
become possible only within a large modern industry that not only 
accepts women's work on a grand scale but formally requires it." 

Thus woman's fate is intimately bound to the fate of socialism as 
seen also in Bebel's vast work on women. "Women and the 
proletariat," he writes, "are both oppressed." And both must be set 
free by the same economic development resulting from the upheaval 
caused by the invention of machines. The problem of woman can be 
reduced to that of her capacity for work. Powerful when technology 
matched her possibilities, dethroned when she became incapable of 
benefiting from them, she finds again equality with man in the modern 
world. Resistance put up by the old capitalist paternalism prevents this 
equality from being concretely achieved: it will be achieved the day 
this resistance is broken down. It already has broken down in the 
U.S.S.R., Soviet propaganda affirms. And when socialist society is 
realized throughout the whole world, there will no longer be men or 
women, but only workers, equal among themselves. 

Although the synthesis outlined by Engels marks an advance over 
those we have already examined, it is still disappointing: the most 
serious problems are dodged. The whole account pivots around the 
transition from a communitarian regime to one of private property: 
there is absolutely no indication of how it was able to occur; Engels 
even admits that "for now we know nothing about it"; 1 not only is he 
unaware of its historical details, but he offers no interpretation of it. 
Similarly, it is unclear if private property necessarily led to the 
enslavement of woman. Historical materialism takes for granted facts 
it should explain: it posits the interest that attaches man to property 
without discussing it; but where does this interest, the source of social 
institutions, have its own source? This is why Engels 's account 
remains superficial, and the truths he uncovers appear contingent. It is 
impossible to go deeper into them without going beyond historical 
materialism. It cannot provide solutions to the problems we indicated, 
because they concern the whole man and not this abstraction, Homo 


It is clear, for example, that the very idea of individual possession 
can acquire meaning only on the basis of the original condition of the 
existent. For that idea to appear, it is first necessary that there be in the 
subject a tendency to posit himself in his radical singularity, an 
affirmation of his existence as autonomous and separate. Obviously 
this claim remained subjective, interior, and without truth as long as 
the individual lacked the practical means to satisfy it objectively: for 
lack of the right tools, at first he could not experience his power over 
the world, he felt lost in nature and in the group, passive, threatened, 
the plaything of obscure forces; it was only in identifying with the 
whole clan that he dared to think himself: the totem, the mana, and the 
earth were collective realities. The discovery of bronze enabled man, 
tested by hard and productive work, to find himself as creator, 
dominating nature; no longer afraid of nature, having overcome 
resistance, he dares to grasp himself as autonomous activity and to 
accomplish himself in his singularity. 2 But this accomplishment 
would never have been realized if man had not originally wanted it; 
the lesson of labor is not inscribed in a passive subject: the subject 
forged and conquered himself in forging his tools and conquering the 
earth. On the other hand, the affirmation of the subject is not enough 
to explain ownership: in challenges, struggles, and individual combat, 
every consciousness can try to rise to sovereignty. For the challenge 
to have taken the form of the potlatch, that is, of economic rivalry, and 
from there first for the chief and then for the clan members to have 
laid claim to private goods, there had to be another original tendency 
in man: in the preceding chapter we said that the existent can only 
succeed in grasping himself by alienating himself; he searches for 
himself through the world, in the guise of a foreign figure he makes 
his own. The clan encounters its own alienated existence in the totem, 
the mana, and the territory it occupies; when the individual separates 
from the community, he demands a singular embodiment: the mana is 
individualized in the chief, then in each individual; and at the same 
time each one tries to appropriate a piece of land, tools, or crops. In 
these riches of his, man finds himself because he lost himself in them: 
it is understandable then that he can attribute to them an importance as 
basic as that of his life itself. Thus man's interest in his property 
becomes an intelligible relationship. But clearly the tool alone is not 
enough to explain it; the whole attitude of the tool-armed man must be 


grasped, an attitude that implies an ontological infrastructure. 

Similarly, it is impossible to deduce woman's oppression from 
private property. Here again, the shortcomings of Engels's point of 
view are obvious. While he clearly understood that woman's 
muscular weakness was a concrete inferiority only in relation to 
bronze and iron tools, he failed to see that limits to her work capacity 
constituted in themselves a concrete disadvantage only from a certain 
perspective. Because man is transcendence and ambition, he projects 
new demands with each new tool: after having invented bronze 
instruments, he was no longer satisfied with developing gardens and 
wanted instead to clear and cultivate vast fields. This will did not 
spring from bronze itself. Woman's powerlessness brought about her 
ruin because man apprehended her through a project of enrichment 
and expansion. And this project is still not enough to explain her 
oppression: the division of labor by sex might have been a friendly 
association. If the original relation between man and his peers had 
been exclusively one of friendship, one could not account for any 
kind of enslavement: this phenomenon is a consequence of the 
imperialism of human consciousness, which seeks to match its 
sovereignty objectively. Had there not been in human consciousness 
both the original category of the Other and an original claim to 
domination over the Other, the discovery of the bronze tool could not 
have brought about woman's oppression. Nor does Engels account 
for the specific character of this oppression. He tried to reduce the 
opposition of the sexes to a class conflict: in fact, he did it without real 
conviction; this thesis is indefensible. True, the division of labor by 
sex and the oppression resulting from it bring to mind class division 
in some ways: but they should not be confused; there is no biological 
basis for division by class; in work the slave becomes conscious of 
himself against the master; the proletariat has always experienced its 
condition in revolt, thus returning to the essential, constituting a threat 
to its exploiters; and the goal of the proletariat is to cease to exist as a 
class. We have said in the introduction how different woman's 
situation is, specifically because of the community of life and interests 
that create her solidarity with man, and due to the complicity he 
encounters in her: she harbors no desire for revolution, she would not 
think of eliminating herself as a sex: she simply asks that certain 
consequences of sexual differentiation be abolished. And more 


serious still, woman cannot in good faith be regarded only as a 
worker; her reproductive function is as important as her productive 
capacity, both in the social economy and in her personal life; there are 
periods in history when it is more useful to have children than till the 
soil. Engels sidestepped the problem; he limits himself to declaring 
that the socialist community will abolish the family, quite an abstract 
solution; everyone knows how often and how radically the U.S.S.R. 
has had to change its family policy to balance out production needs of 
the moment with the needs of repopulation; besides, eliminating the 
family does not necessarily liberate woman: the example of Sparta and 
that of the Nazi regime prove that notwithstanding her direct 
attachment to the state, she might still be no less oppressed by males. 
A truly socialist ethic — one that seeks justice without restraining 
liberty, one that imposes responsibilities on individuals but without 
abolishing individual freedom — will find itself most uncomfortable 
with problems posed by woman's condition. It is impossible to 
simply assimilate gestation to a job or service like military service. A 
deeper breach is created in a woman's life by requiring her to have 
children than by regulating citizens' occupations: no state has ever 
dared institute compulsory coitus. In the sexual act and in maternity, 
woman engages not only time and energy but also essential values. 
Rationalist materialism tries in vain to ignore this powerful aspect of 
sexuality: sexual instinct cannot be regulated; according to Freud, it 
might even possess an inherent denial of its own satisfaction; what is 
certain is that it cannot be integrated into the social sphere, because 
there is in eroticism a revolt of the instant against time, of the 
individual against the universal: to try to channel and exploit it risks 
killing it, because live spontaneity cannot be disposed of like inert 
matter; nor can it be compelled in the way a freedom can be. There is 
no way to directly oblige a woman to give birth: all that can be done is 
to enclose her in situations where motherhood is her only option: laws 
or customs impose marriage on her, anticonception measures and 
abortion are banned, divorce is forbidden. These old patriarchal 
constraints are exactly the ones the U.S.S.R. has brought back to life 
today; it has revived paternalistic theories about marriage; and in 
doing so, it has asked woman to become an erotic object again: a 
recent speech asked Soviet women citizens to pay attention to their 
clothes, to use makeup, and to become flirtatious to hold on to their 


husbands and stimulate their desire. Examples like this prove how 
impossible it is to consider the woman as a solely productive force: 
for man she is a sexual partner, a reproducer, an erotic object, an 
Other through whom he seeks himself. Although totalitarian or 
authoritarian regimes may all try to ban psychoanalysis and declare 
that personal emotional conflicts have no place for citizens loyally 
integrated into the community, eroticism is an experience where 
individuality always prevails over generality. And for democratic 
socialism where classes would be abolished but not individuals, the 
question of individual destiny would still retain all its importance: 
sexual differentiation would retain all its importance. The sexual 
relation that unites woman with man is not the same as the one he 
maintains with her; the bond that attaches her to the child is irreducible 
to any other. She was not created by the bronze tool alone: the 
machine is not sufficient to abolish her. To demand for woman all the 
rights, all the possibilities of the human being in general does not 
mean one must be blind to her singular situation. To know this 
situation, it is necessary to go beyond historical materialism, which 
only sees man and woman as economic entities. 

So we reject Freud's sexual monism and Engels's economic 
monism for the same reason. A psychoanalyst will interpret all 
woman's social claims as a phenomenon of "masculine protest"; for 
the Marxist, on the other hand, her sexuality only expresses her 
economic situation, in a rather complex, roundabout way; but the 
categories clitoral and vaginal, like the categories bourgeois and 
proletarian, are equally inadequate to encompass a concrete woman. 
Underlying the personal emotional conflicts as well as the economic 
history of humanity there is an existential infrastructure that alone 
makes it possible to understand in its unity the unique form that is a 
life. Freudianism's value derives from the fact that the existent is a 
body: the way he experiences himself as a body in the presence of 
other bodies concretely translates his existential situation. Likewise, 
what is true in the Marxist thesis is that the existent's ontological 
claims take on a concrete form based on the material possibilities 
offered to him, particularly based on those that technology opens to 
him. But if they are not incorporated into the whole of human reality, 
sexuality and technology of themselves will fail to explain anything. 
This is why in Freud prohibitions imposed by the superego and the 


drives of the ego appear as contingent facts; and in Engels's account 
of the history of the family, the most important events seem to arise 
unexpectedly through the whims of mysterious chance. To discover 
woman, we will not reject certain contributions of biology, 
psychoanalysis, or historical materialism: but we will consider that the 
body, sexual life, and technology exist concretely for man only 
insofar as he grasps them from the overall perspective of his 
existence. The value of muscular strength, the phallus, and the tool 
can only be defined in a world of values: it is driven by the 
fundamental project of the existent transcending itself toward being. 

1 . Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. 

2. Gaston Bachelard in La terre et les reveries de la volonte (Earth and Reveries of 
Will) carries out, among others, an interesting study of the blacksmith's work. He 
shows how man asserts and separates himself from himself by the hammer and anvil. 
"The temporal existence of the blacksmith is both highly particular and larger than 
life. Through momentary violence, the worker, uplifted, gains mastery over time"; and 
further on: "Those who forge take on the challenge of the universe rising against 






This world has always belonged to males, and none of the reasons 
given for this have ever seemed sufficient. By reviewing prehistoric 
and ethnographic data in the light of existentialist philosophy, we can 
understand how the hierarchy of the sexes came to be. We have 
already posited that when two human categories find themselves face- 
to-face, each one wants to impose its sovereignty on the other; if both 
hold to this claim equally, a reciprocal relationship is created, either 
hostile or friendly, but always tense. If one of the two has an 
advantage over the other, that one prevails and works to maintain the 
relationship by oppression. It is thus understandable that man might 
have had the will to dominate woman: but what advantage enabled 
him to accomplish this will? 

Ethnologists give extremely contradictory information about 
primitive forms of human society, even more so when they are well- 
informed and less systematic. It is especially difficult to formulate an 
idea about woman's situation in the preagricultural period. We do not 
even know if, in such different living conditions from today's, 
woman's musculature or her respiratory system was not as developed 
as man's. She was given hard work, and in particular it was she who 
carried heavy loads; yet this latter fact is ambiguous: probably if she 
was assigned this function, it is because within the convoy men kept 
their hands free to defend against possible aggressors, animals or 
humans; so their role was the more dangerous one and demanded 
more strength. But it seems that in many cases women were robust 
and resilient enough to participate in warrior expeditions. According 
to the accounts by Herodotus and the traditions of the Amazons from 
Dahomey as well as ancient and modern testimonies, women were 
known to take part in bloody wars or vendettas; they showed as much 
courage and cruelty as males: there are references to women who bit 
their teeth into their enemies' livers. In spite of this, it is likely that 
then as now men had the advantage of physical force; in the age of the 
clubs and wild animals, in the age when resistance to nature was at its 


greatest and tools were at their most rudimentary, this superiority 
must have been of extreme importance. In any case, as robust as 
women may have been at that time, the burdens of reproduction 
represented for them a severe handicap in the fight against a hostile 
world: Amazons were said to mutilate their breasts, which meant that 
at least during the period of their warrior lives they rejected maternity. 
As for ordinary women, pregnancy, giving birth, and menstruation 
diminished their work capacity and condemned them to long periods 
of impotence; to defend themselves against enemies or to take care of 
themselves and their children, they needed the protection of warriors 
and the catch from hunting and fishing provided by the males. As 
there obviously was no birth control, and as nature does not provide 
woman with sterile periods as it does for other female mammals, 
frequent pregnancies must have absorbed the greater part of their 
strength and their time; they were unable to provide for the lives of the 
children they brought into the world. This is a primary fact fraught 
with great consequence: the human species' beginnings were difficult; 
hunter, gatherer, and fishing peoples reaped meager bounty from the 
soil, and at great cost in effort; too many children were born for the 
group's resources; the woman's absurd fertility kept her from 
participating actively in the growth of these resources, while it was 
constantly creating new needs. Indispensable to the perpetuation of 
the species, she perpetuated it too abundantly: so it was man who 
controlled the balance between reproduction and production. Thus 
woman did not even have the privilege of maintaining life that the 
creator male had; she did not play the role of ovum to his 
spermatozoid or womb to his phallus; she played only one part in the 
human species' effort to persist in being, and it was thanks to man 
that this effort had a concrete result. 

Nonetheless, as the production-reproduction balance always finds a 
way of stabilizing itself — even at the price of infanticide, sacrifices, or 
wars — men and women are equally indispensable from the point of 
view of group survival; it could even be supposed that at certain 
periods when food was plentiful, his protective and nourishing role 
might have subordinated the male to the wife-mother. There are 
female animals that derive total autonomy from motherhood; so why 
has woman not been able to make a pedestal for herself from it? Even 
in those moments when humanity most desperately needed births — 


since the need for manual labor prevailed over the need for raw 
materials to exploit — and even in those times when motherhood was 
the most venerated, maternity was not enough for women to conquer 
the highest rank. 1 The reason for this is that humanity is not a simple 
natural species: it does not seek to survive as a species; its project is 
not stagnation: it seeks to surpass itself 

The primitive hordes were barely interested in their posterity. 
Connected to no territory, owning nothing, embodied in nothing 
stable, they could formulate no concrete idea of permanence; they 
were unconcerned with survival and did not recognize themselves in 
their descendants; they did not fear death and did not seek heirs; 
children were a burden and not of great value for them; the proof is 
that infanticide has always been frequent in nomadic peoples; and 
many newborns who are not massacred die for lack of hygiene in a 
climate of total indifference. So the woman who gives birth does not 
take pride in her creation; she feels like the passive plaything of 
obscure forces, and painful childbirth a useless and even bothersome 
accident. Later, more value was attached to children. But in any case, 
to give birth and to breast-feed are not activities but natural functions; 
they do not involve a project, which is why the woman finds no 
motive there to claim a higher meaning for her existence; she 
passively submits to her biological destiny. Because housework alone 
is compatible with the duties of motherhood, she is condemned to 
domestic labor, which locks her into repetition and immanence; day 
after day it repeats itself in identical form from century to century; it 
produces nothing new. Man's case is radically different. He does not 
provide for the group in the way worker bees do, by a simple vital 
process, but rather by acts that transcend his animal condition. Homo 
faber has been an inventor since the beginning of time: even the stick 
or the club he armed himself with to knock down fruit from a tree or 
to slaughter animals is an instrument that expands his grasp of the 
world; bringing home freshly caught fish is not enough for him: he 
first has to conquer the seas by constructing dugout canoes; to 
appropriate the world's treasures, he annexes the world itself. 
Through such actions he tests his own power; he posits ends and 
projects paths to them: he realizes himself as existent. To maintain 
himself, he creates; he spills over the present and opens up the future. 
This is the reason fishing and hunting expeditions have a sacred 


quality. Their success is greeted by celebration and triumph; man 
recognizes his humanity in them. This pride is still apparent today 
when he builds a dam, a skyscraper, or an atomic reactor. He has not 
only worked to preserve the given world: he has burst its borders; he 
has laid the ground for a new future. 

His activity has another dimension that endows him with supreme 
dignity: it is often dangerous. If blood were only a food, it would not 
be worth more than milk: but the hunter is not a butcher: he runs risks 
in the struggle against wild animals. The warrior risks his own life to 
raise the prestige of the horde — his clan. This is how he brilliantly 
proves that life is not the supreme value for man but that it must serve 
ends far greater than itself. The worst curse on woman is her 
exclusion from warrior expeditions; it is not in giving life but in 
risking his life that man raises himself above the animal; this is why 
throughout humanity, superiority has been granted not to the sex that 
gives birth but to the one that kills. 

Here we hold the key to the whole mystery. On a biological level, a 
species maintains itself only by re-creating itself; but this creation is 
nothing but a repetition of the same Life in different forms. By 
transcending Life through Existence, man guarantees the repetition of 
Life: by this surpassing, he creates values that deny any value to pure 
repetition. With an animal, the gratuitousness and variety of male 
activities are useless because no project is involved; what it does is 
worthless when it is not serving the species; but in serving the 
species, the human male shapes the face of the earth, creates new 
instruments, invents and forges the future. Positing himself as 
sovereign, he encounters the complicity of woman herself: because 
she herself is also an existent, because transcendence also inhabits her 
and her project is not repetition but surpassing herself toward another 
future; she finds the confirmation of masculine claims in the core of 
her being. She participates with men in festivals that celebrate the 
success and victories of males. Her misfortune is to have been 
biologically destined to repeat Life, while in her own eyes Life in 
itself does not provide her reasons for being, and these reasons are 
more important than life itself. 

Certain passages where Hegel's dialectic describes the relationship 
of master to slave would apply far better to the relationship of man to 
woman. The Master's privilege, he states, arises from the affirmation 


of Spirit over Life in the fact of risking his life: but in fact the 
vanquished slave has experienced this same risk, whereas the woman 
is originally an existent who gives Life and does not risk her life; 
there has never been combat between the male and her; Hegel's 
definition applies singularly to her. "The other [consciousness] is the 
dependent consciousness for which essential reality is animal life, that 
is, life given by another entity." But this relationship differs from the 
relationship of oppression because woman herself aspires to and 
recognizes the values concretely attained by males. It is the male who 
opens up the future toward which she also transcends; in reality, 
women have never pitted female values against male ones: it is men 
wanting to maintain masculine prerogatives who invented this 
division; they wanted to create a feminine domain — a rule of life, of 
immanence — only to lock woman in it. But it is above and beyond all 
sexual specification that the existent seeks self-justification in the 
movement of his transcendence: the very submission of women 
proves this. Today what women claim is to be recognized as exis tents 
just like men, and not to subordinate existence to life or the man to his 

Thus an existential perspective has enabled us to understand how 
the biological and economic situation of primitive hordes led to male 
supremacy. The female, more than the male, is prey to the species; 
humanity has always tried to escape from its species' destiny; with the 
invention of the tool, maintenance of life became activity and project 
for man, while motherhood left woman riveted to her body like the 
animal. It is because humanity puts itself into question in its being — 
that is, values reasons for living over life — that man has set himself as 
master over woman; man's project is not to repeat himself in time: it is 
to reign over the instant and to forge the future. Male activity, creating 
values, has constituted existence itself as a value; it has prevailed over 
the indistinct forces of life; and it has subjugated Nature and Woman. 
We must now see how this situation has continued and evolved 
through the centuries. What place has humanity allotted to this part of 
itself that has been defined in its core as Other? What rights have been 
conceded to it? How have men defined it? 

1 . Sociology no longer gives credit to Bachofen's lucubrations. 



We have just seen that women's fate is very harsh in primitive hordes; 
in female animals the reproductive function is limited naturally, and 
when it occurs, the particular animal is more or less released from 
other toil; only domestic females are sometimes exploited to the point 
of exhaustion of their forces as reproducers and in their individual 
capacities by a demanding master. This was undoubtedly the case of 
woman at a time when the struggle against a hostile world demanded 
the full employment of community resources; added to the fatigues of 
incessant and unregulated procreation were those of hard domestic 
duties. Nevertheless, some historians maintain that precisely at that 
time, male superiority was the least marked; which means that this 
superiority is lived in an immediate form, not yet posited and willed; 
no one tries to compensate for the cruel disadvantages that handicap 
woman; but neither does anyone try to break her down, as will later 
happen in paternalistic regimes. No institution actually ratifies the 
inequality of the sexes; in fact, there are no institutions: no property, 
no inheritance, no legal system. Religion is neutral; the totems that are 
worshipped are asexual. 

It is when nomads settled the land and became farmers that 
institutions and law appeared. Man no longer has to limit himself to 
combating hostile forces; he begins to express himself concretely 
through the figure he imposes on the world, thinking the world and 
thinking himself; at that juncture, sexual differentiation is reflected in 
the group structure, and it takes on a particular character: in 
agricultural communities, woman is often vested with extraordinary 
prestige. This prestige is explained essentially by the new importance 
that children assume in a civilization based on working the land; by 
settling a territory, men begin to appropriate it. Property appears in a 
collective form; it demands posterity from its owners; motherhood 
becomes a sacred function. Many tribes live under a communal 
regime: this does not mean that women belong to all the men in the 
community; it is no longer thought today that promiscuous marriage 


was ever practiced; but men and women only have a religious, social, 
and economic existence as a group: their individuality remains a 
purely biological fact; marriage, whatever its form — monogamy, 
polygamy, polyandry — is itself nothing but a secular incident that 
does not create a mystical link. For the wife it is in no way a source of 
servitude, as she remains an integral part of her clan. The clan as a 
whole, gathered under the same totem, mystically shares the same 
mana and materially shares the common enjoyment of a territory. But 
in the alienation process mentioned before, the clan grasps itself in 
this territory in the guise of an objective and concrete figure; through 
the permanence of the land, the clan thus realizes itself as a unity 
whose identity persists throughout the passage of time. Only this 
existential process makes it possible to understand the identification 
that has survived to this day among the clan, the gens, the family, and 
property. In the thinking of nomadic tribes, only the moment exists; 
the agricultural community replaces this thinking with the concept of a 
life rooted in the past and incorporating the future: the totem ancestor 
who gives his name to the clan members is venerated; and the clan 
takes an abiding interest in its descendants: it will survive through the 
land that he bequeaths to them and that they will exploit. The 
community conceives of its unity and wills its existence beyond the 
present: it sees itself in its children, it recognizes them as its own, and 
it accomplishes and surpasses itself through them. 

But many primitives are unaware of the father's role in the 
procreation of children, who are thought to be the reincarnation of 
ancestral larvae floating around certain trees, certain rocks, in certain 
sacred places, and descending into the woman's body; in some cases, 
they believe she must not be a virgin if this infiltration is to take place; 
but other peoples believe that it also takes place through the nostrils or 
mouth; at any rate, defloration is secondary here, and for mystical 
reasons the prerogative is rarely the husband's. The mother is clearly 
necessary for the birth of the child; she is the one who keeps and 
nourishes the germ within her, and so the life of the clan is propagated 
in the visible world through her. This is how she finds herself playing 
the principal role. Very often, children belong to their mother's clan, 
bear her name, and share her rights, particularly the use of the land 
belonging to the clan. So communal property is transmitted through 
women: through them the fields and their harvests are reserved to 


members of the clan, and inversely it is through their mothers that 
members are destined to a given piece of land. The land can thus be 
considered as mystically belonging to women: their hold on the soil 
and its fruits is both religious and legal. The tie that binds them is 
stronger than one of ownership; maternal right is characterized by a 
true assimilation of woman to the land; in each, through its avatars, 
the permanence of life is achieved, life that is essentially generation. 
For nomads, procreation seems only an accident, and the riches of the 
earth are still unknown; but the farmer admires the mystery of 
fertilization that burgeons in the furrows and in the maternal womb. 
He knows that he was conceived like the cattle and the harvests, and 
he wants his clan to conceive other humans who will perpetuate it in 
perpetuating the fertility of the fields; nature as a whole seems like a 
mother to him; the earth is woman, and the woman is inhabited by the 
same obscure forces as the earth. 1 This is part of the reason 
agricultural work is entrusted to woman: able to call up the ancestral 
larvae within her, she also has the power to make fruit and wheat 
spring from the sowed fields. In both cases it is a question of a magic 
conjuration, not of a creative act. At this stage, man no longer limits 
himself to gathering the products of the earth: but he does not yet 
understand his power; he hesitates between technical skill and magic; 
he feels passive, dependent on Nature that doles out existence and 
death by chance. To be sure, he recognizes more or less the function 
of the sexual act as well as the techniques for cultivating the soil: but 
children and crops still seem like supernatural gifts; and the 
mysterious emanations flowing from the feminine body bring forth 
into this world the riches latent in the mysterious sources of life. Such 
beliefs are still alive today among numerous Indian, Australian, and 
Polynesian tribes, and become all the more important as they match 
the practical interests of the collectivity. 2 Motherhood relegates 
woman to a sedentary existence; it is natural for her to stay at home 
while men hunt, fish, and go to war. But primitive people rarely 
cultivate more than a modest garden contained within their own 
village limits, and its cultivation is a domestic task; Stone Age 
instruments require little effort; economics and mystical belief agree to 
leave agricultural work to women. Domestic work, as it is taking 
shape, is also their lot: they weave rugs and blankets; they shape 
pottery. And they are often in charge of barter; commerce is in their 


hands. The life of the clan is thus maintained and extended through 
them; children, herds, harvests, tools, and the whole prosperity of the 
group of which they are the soul depend on their work and their 
magic virtues. Such strength inspires in men a respect mingled with 
fear, reflected in their worship. It is in women that the whole of 
foreign Nature is concentrated. 

It has already been said here that man never thinks himself without 
thinking the Other; he grasps the world under the emblem of duality, 
which is not initially sexual. But being naturally different from man, 
who posits himself as the same, woman is consigned to the category 
of Other; the Other encompasses woman; at first she is not important 
enough to incarnate the Other alone, so a subdivision at the heart of 
the Other develops: in ancient cosmographies, a single element often 
has both male and female incarnations; thus for the Babylonians, the 
Ocean and the Sea were the double incarnation of cosmic chaos. 
When the woman's role grows, she comes to occupy nearly the whole 
region of the Other. Then appear the feminine divinities through 
whom fertility is worshipped. A discovery made in Susa shows the 
oldest representation of the Great Goddess, the Great Mother in a 
long robe and high coiffure, which other statues show crowned with 
towers; excavations in Crete have yielded several effigies of her. She 
can be steatopygous and crouched, or thin and standing, sometimes 
clothed, and often naked, her arms pressed beneath her swollen 
breasts. She is the queen of heaven, a dove is her symbol; she is also 
the empress of hades, she comes out slithering, symbolized by a 
serpent. She can be seen in mountains, woods, the sea, and springs. 
She creates life everywhere; if she kills, she resurrects. Fickle, 
lascivious, and cruel like Nature, propitious and yet dangerous, she 
reigns over all of Asia Minor, over Phrygia, Syria, Anatolia, and over 
all of western Asia. She is known as Ishtar in Babylon, Astarte to 
Semitic peoples, and Gaea, Rhea, or Cybele to the Greeks; she is 
found in Egypt in the form of Isis; male divinities are subordinated to 
her. Supreme idol in faraway regions of heaven and hades, woman on 
earth is surrounded by taboos like all sacred beings — she is herself 
taboo; because of the powers she holds, she is seen as a magician or a 
sorceress; she is included in prayers, and she can be at times a 
priestess like the druids among the ancient Celts; in certain cases she 
participates in the government of the tribe, and at times she even 


governs on her own. These distant ages have left us no literature. But 
the great patriarchal periods conserve in their mythology, monuments, 
and traditions the memory of times when women occupied very high 
positions. From a feminine point of view, the Brahman period is a 
regression from that of Rig-Veda, and the latter a regression from the 
primitive stage that preceded it. The pre-Islamic bedouin women had a 
much higher status than that accorded them by the Koran. The great 
figures of Niobe and Medea evoke an era when mothers, considering 
their children to be their own property, took pride in them. And in the 
Homeric poems, Andromache and Hecuba have an importance that 
classic Greece no longer granted to women hidden in the shadows of 
the gynaeceum. 

These facts all lead to the supposition that in primitive times a 
veritable reign of women existed; this hypothesis, proposed by 
Bachofen, was adopted by Engels; the passage from matriarchy to 
patriarchy seems to him to be "the great historical defeat of the 
feminine sex." But in reality this golden age of Woman is only a 
myth. To say that woman was the Other is to say that a relationship of 
reciprocity between the sexes did not exist: whether Earth, Mother, or 
Goddess, she was never a peer for man; her power asserted itself 
beyond human rule: she was thus outside of this rule. Society has 
always been male; political power has always been in men's hands. 
"Political authority, or simply social authority, always belongs to 
men," Levi-Strauss affirms at the end of his study of primitive 
societies. For men, the counterpart — or the other — who is also the 
same, with whom reciprocal relationships are established, is always 
another male individual. The duality that can be seen in one form or 
another at the heart of society pits one group of men against another; 
and women are part of the goods men possess and a means of 
exchange among themselves: the mistake comes from confusing two 
forms of mutually exclusive alterity. Insofar as woman is considered 
the absolute Other, that is — whatever magic powers she has — as the 
inessential, it is precisely impossible to regard her as another subject. 3 
Women have thus never constituted a separate group that posited itself 
for-itself before a male group; they have never had a direct or 
autonomous relationship with men. "The relationship of reciprocity 
which is the basis of marriage is not established between men and 
women, but between men by means of women, who are merely the 


occasion of this relationship," said Levi-Strauss. 4 Woman's concrete 
condition is not affected by the type of lineage that prevails in the 
society to which she belongs; whether the regime is patrilineal, 
matrilineal, bilateral, or undifferentiated (undifferentiation never being 
precise), she is always under men's guardianship; the only question is 
if, after marriage, she is still subjected to the authority of her father or 
her oldest brother — authority that will also extend to her children — or 
of her husband. In any case: "The woman is never anything more than 
the symbol of her lineage. Matrilineal descent is the authority of the 
woman's father or brother extended to the brother-in-law's village." 5 
She only mediates the law; she does not possess it. In fact, it is the 
relationship of two masculine groups that is defined by the system of 
filiation, and not the relation of the two sexes. In practice, woman's 
concrete condition is not consistently linked to any given type of law. 
It may happen that in a matrilineal system she has a very high 
position: but — beware — the presence of a woman chief or a queen at 
the head of a tribe absolutely does not mean that women are 
sovereign: the reign of Catherine the Great changed nothing in the fate 
of Russian peasant women; and they lived no less frequently in a state 
of abjection. And cases where a woman remains in her clan and her 
husband makes rapid, even clandestine visits to her are very rare. She 
almost always goes to live under her husband's roof: this fact is proof 
enough of male domination. "Behind the variations in the type of 
descent," writes Levi-Strauss, "the permanence of patrilocal residence 
attests to the basic asymmetrical relationship between the sexes which 
is characteristic of human society." Since she keeps her children with 
her, the result is that the territorial organization of the tribe does not 
correspond to its totemic organization: the former is contingent, the 
latter rigorously constructed; but in practice, the first was the more 
important because the place where people work and live counts more 
than their mystical connection. In the more widespread transitional 
regimes, there are two kinds of rights, one based on religion and the 
other on the occupation and labor on the land, and they overlap. 
Though only a secular institution, marriage nevertheless has great 
social importance, and the conjugal family, though stripped of 
religious signification, is very alive on a human level. Even within 
groups where great sexual freedom is found, it is considered 
conventional for a woman who brings a child into the world to be 


married; alone with an offspring, she cannot constitute an autonomous 
group; and her brother's religious protection does not suffice; a 
husband's presence is required. He often has many heavy 
responsibilities for the children; they do not belong to his clan, but it 
is nonetheless he who feeds and raises them; between husband and 
wife, and father and son, bonds of cohabitation, work, common 
interest, and tenderness are formed. Relations between this secular 
family and the totemic clan are extremely complex, as the diversity of 
marriage rites attests. In primitive times, a husband buys a wife from a 
foreign clan, or at least there is an exchange of goods from one clan to 
another, the first giving over one of its members and the second 
delivering cattle, fruits, or work in return. But as husbands take 
charge of wives and their children, it also happens that they receive 
remuneration from their brides' brothers. The balance between 
mystical and economic realities is an unstable one. Men often have a 
closer attachment to their sons than to their nephews; it is as a father 
that a man will choose to affirm himself when such affirmation 
becomes possible. And this is why every society tends toward a 
patriarchal form as its development leads man to gain awareness of 
himself and to impose his will. But it is important to emphasize that 
even at times when he was still confused by the mysteries of Life, 
Nature, and Woman, he never relinquished his power; when, terrified 
by the dangerous magic woman possesses, he posits her as the 
essential, it is he who posits her, and he who realizes himself thereby 
as the essential in this alienation he grants; in spite of the fecund 
virtues that infuse her, man remains her master, just as he is master of 
the fertile earth; she is destined to be subordinated, possessed, and 
exploited, as is also Nature, whose magic fertility she incarnates. The 
prestige she enjoys in the eyes of men comes from them; they kneel 
before the Other, they worship the Goddess Mother. But as powerful 
as she may appear, she is defined through notions created by the male 
consciousness. All of the idols invented by man, however terrifying 
he may have made them, are in fact dependent upon him, and this is 
why he is able to destroy them. In primitive societies, this dependence 
is not acknowledged and posited, but its existence is implicit, in itself: 
and it will readily become mediatory as soon as man develops a 
clearer consciousness of self, as soon as he dares to assert himself 
and stand in opposition. And in fact, even when man grasps himself 


as given, passive, and subject to the vagaries of rain and sun, he still 
realizes himself as transcendence, as project; already, spirit and will 
assert themselves within him against life's confusion and 
contingencies. The totem ancestor, of which woman assumes multiple 
incarnations, is more or less distinctly a male principle under its 
animal or tree name; woman perpetuates carnal existence, but her role 
is only that of nourisher, not of creator; in no domain whatsoever 
does she create; she maintains the life of the tribe by providing 
children and bread, nothing more; she lives condemned to immanence; 
she incarnates only the static aspect of society, closed in on itself. 
Meanwhile, man continues to monopolize the functions that open this 
society to nature and to the whole of humanity; the only efforts 
worthy of him are war, hunting, and fishing; he conquers foreign prey 
and annexes it to the tribe; war, hunting, and fishing represent an 
expansion of existence, his going beyond into the world; the male is 
still the only incarnation of transcendence. He does not yet have the 
practical means to totally dominate Woman-Earth, he does not yet dare 
stand up to her: but already he wants to tear himself away from her. I 
think the profound reason for the well-known custom of exogamy, so 
widespread in matrilineal societies, is to be found in this 
determination. Even though man is unaware of the role he plays in 
procreation, marriage has great importance for him; this is where he 
attains adult dignity and receives his share of a piece of the world; 
through his mother he is bound to the clan, his ancestors, and 
everything that constitutes his own subsistence; but in all of these 
secular functions — work or marriage — he aspires to escape this circle 
and assert transcendence against immanence, to open up a future 
different from the past where he is rooted; depending on the types of 
relations recognized in different societies, the banning of incest takes 
on different forms, but from primitive times to our days it has 
remained the same: man wishes to possess that which he is not; he 
unites himself to what appears to him to be Other than himself. The 
wife must not be part of the husband's mana, she must be foreign to 
him: thus foreign to his clan. Primitive marriage is sometimes founded 
on abduction, real or symbolic: because violence done to another is 
the clearest affirmation of another's alterity. Taking his wife by force, 
the warrior proves he is able to annex the riches of others and burst 
through the bounds of the destiny assigned to him at birth; purchasing 


her under various forms — paying tribute, rendering services — has, 
less dramatically, the same signification. 6 

Little by little, man mediated his experience, and in his 
representations, as in his practical existence, the male principle 
triumphed. Spirit prevailed over Life, transcendence over immanence, 
technology over magic, and reason over superstition. The devaluation 
of woman represents a necessary stage in the history of humanity: for 
she derived her prestige not from her positive value but from man's 
weakness; she incarnated disturbing natural mysteries: man escapes 
her grasp when he frees himself from nature. In passing from stone to 
bronze, he is able to conquer the land through his work and conquer 
himself as well. The farmer is subjected to the vagaries of the soil, of 
germination, and of seasons; he is passive, he beseeches, and he 
waits: this explains why totem spirits peopled the human world; the 
peasant endured the whims of these forces that took possession of 
him. On the contrary, the worker fashions a tool according to his own 
design; he imposes on it the form that fits his project; facing an inert 
nature that defies him but that he overcomes, he asserts himself as 
sovereign will; if he quickens his strokes on the anvil, he quickens the 
completion of the tool, whereas nothing can hasten the ripening of 
grain; his responsibility develops with what he makes: his movement, 
adroit or maladroit, makes it or breaks it; careful, skillful, he brings it 
to a point of perfection he can be proud of: his success depends not 
on the favor of the gods but on himself; he challenges his fellow 
workers, he takes pride in his success; and while he still leaves some 
place for rituals, applied techniques seem far more important to him; 
mystical values become secondary, and practical interests take 
precedence; he is not entirely liberated from the gods, but he distances 
himself by distancing them from himself; he relegates them to their 
Olympian heaven and keeps the terrestrial domain for himself; the 
great Pan begins to fade at the first sound of his hammer, and man's 
reign begins. He discovers his power. He finds cause and effect in the 
relationship between his creating arm and the object of his creation: 
the seed planted germinates or not, while metal always reacts in the 
same way to fire, to tempering, and to mechanical treatment; this 
world of tools can be framed in clear concepts: rational thinking, 
logic, and mathematics are thus able to emerge. The whole 
representation of the universe is overturned. Woman's religion is 


bound to the reign of agriculture, a reign of irreducible duration, 
contingencies, chance, anticipation, and mystery; the reign of Homo 
faber is the reign of time that can be conquered like space, the reign of 
necessity, project, action, and reason. Even when he contends with the 
earth, he will henceforth contend with it as a worker; he discovers that 
the soil can be fertilized, that it is good to let it lie fallow, that certain 
seeds should be treated certain ways: it is he who makes the crops 
grow; he digs canals, he irrigates or drains the land, he lays out roads, 
he builds temples: he creates the world anew. The peoples who 
remained under the heel of the Mother Goddess where matrilineal 
filiation was perpetuated were also those arrested in a primitive state 
of civilization. Woman was venerated only inasmuch as man was a 
slave to his own fears, a party to his own impotence: it was out of fear 
and not love that he worshipped her. Before he could accomplish 
himself, he had to begin by dethroning her. 7 It is the male principle of 
creative force, light, intelligence, and order that he will henceforth 
recognize as a sovereign. Standing beside the Mother Goddess 
emerges a god, a son, or a lover who is still inferior to her, but who 
looks exactly like her, and who is associated with her. He also 
incarnates the fertility principle: he is a bull, the Minotaur, or the Nile 
fertilizing the plains of Egypt. He dies in autumn and is reborn in 
spring after the spouse-mother, invulnerable yet tearful, has devoted 
her forces to searching for his body and bringing him back to life. 
Appearing in Crete, this couple can also be found all along the banks 
of the Mediterranean: Isis and Horus in Egypt, Astarte and Adonis in 
Phoenicia, Cybele and Attis in Asia Minor, and Rhea and Zeus in 
Hellenic Greece. And then the Great Mother was dethroned. In Egypt, 
where woman's condition is exceptionally favorable, the goddess 
Nout, incarnating the sky, and Isis, the fertile land, wife of the Nile, 
Osiris, continue to be extremely important; but it is nonetheless Ra, 
the sun god, virile light and energy, who is the supreme king. In 
Babylon, Ishtar is only the wife of Bel-Marduk; and it is he who 
created things and guaranteed harmony. The god of the Semites is 
male. When Zeus reigns in heaven, Gaea, Rhea, and Cybele have to 
abdicate: all that is left to Demeter is a still imposing but secondary 
divinity. The Vedic gods have wives, but these are not worshipped as 
they are. The Roman Jupiter has no equal. 8 

Thus, the triumph of patriarchy was neither an accident nor the 


result of a violent revolution. From the origins of humanity, their 
biological privilege enabled men to affirm themselves alone as 
sovereign subjects; they never abdicated this privilege; they alienated 
part of their existence in Nature and in Woman; but they won it back 
afterward; condemned to play the role of the Other, woman was thus 
condemned to possess no more than precarious power: slave or idol, 
she was never the one who chose her lot. "Men make gods and 
women worship them," said Frazer; it is men who decide if their 
supreme divinities will be females or males; the place of woman in 
society is always the one they assign her; at no time has she imposed 
her own law. 

Perhaps, however, if productive work had remained at the level of 
her strength, woman would have achieved the conquest of nature with 
man; the human species affirmed itself against the gods through male 
and female individuals; but she could not obtain the benefits of tools 
for herself. Engels only incompletely explained her decline: it is 
insufficient to say that the invention of bronze and iron profoundly 
modified the balance of productive forces and brought about women's 
inferiority; this inferiority is not in itself sufficient to account for the 
oppression she has suffered. What was harmful for her was that, not 
becoming a labor partner for the worker, she was excluded from the 
human Mitsein: that woman is weak and has a lower productive 
capacity does not explain this exclusion; rather, it is because she did 
not participate in his way of working and thinking and because she 
remained enslaved to the mysteries of life that the male did not 
recognize in her an equal; by not accepting her, once she kept in his 
eyes the dimension of other, man could only become her oppressor. 
The male will for expansion and domination transformed feminine 
incapacity into a curse. Man wanted to exhaust the new possibilities 
opened up by new technology: he called upon a servile workforce, 
and he reduced his fellow man to slavery. Slave labor being far more 
efficient than work that woman could supply, she lost the economic 
role she played within the tribe. And in his relationship with the slave, 
the master found a far more radical confirmation of his sovereignty 
than the tempered authority he exercised on woman. Venerated and 
revered for her fertility, being other than man, and sharing the 
disquieting character of the other, woman, in a certain way, kept man 
dependent on her even while she was dependent on him; the 


reciprocity of the master-slave relationship existed in the present for 
her, and it was how she escaped slavery. As for the slave, he had no 
taboo to protect him, being nothing but a servile man, not just 
different, but inferior: the dialectic of the slave-master relationship will 
take centuries to be actualized; within the organized patriarchal 
society, the slave is only a beast of burden with a human face: the 
master exercises tyrannical authority over him; this exalts his pride: 
and he turns it against the woman. Everything he wins, he wins 
against her; the more powerful he becomes, the more she declines. In 
particular, when he acquires ownership of land, 9 he also claims 
woman as property. Formerly he was possessed by the mana, by the 
earth: now he has a soul, property; freed from Woman, he now lays 
claim to a woman and a posterity of his own. He wants the family 
labor he uses for the benefit of his fields to be totally his, and for this 
to happen, the workers must belong to him: he subjugates his wife 
and his children. He must have heirs who will extend his life on earth 
because he bequeaths them his possessions, and who will give him in 
turn, beyond the tomb, the necessary honors for the repose of his 
soul. The cult of the domestic gods is superimposed on the 
constitution of private property, and the function of heirs is both 
economic and mystical. Thus, the day agriculture ceases to be an 
essentially magic operation and becomes creative labor, man finds 
himself to be a generative force; he lays claim to his children and his 
crops at the same time. 10 

There is no ideological revolution more important in the primitive 
period than the one replacing matrilineal descent with agnation; from 
that time on, the mother is lowered to the rank of wet nurse or servant, 
and the father's sovereignty is exalted; he is the one who holds rights 
and transmits them. Apollo, in Aeschylus's Eumenides, proclaims 
these new truths: "The mother is no parent of that which is called her 
child, but only nurse of the new -planted seed that grows. The parent 
is he who mounts. A stranger she preserves a stranger's seed, if no 
god interfere." It is clear that these affirmations are not the results of 
scientific discoveries; they are acts of faith. Undoubtedly, the 
experience of technical cause and effect from which man draws the 
assurance of his creative powers makes him recognize he is as 
necessary to procreation as the mother. Idea guided observation; but 
the latter is restricted to granting the father a role equal to that of the 


mother: it led to the supposition that, as for nature, the condition for 
conception was the encounter of sperm and menses; Aristotle's idea 
that woman is merely matter, and "the principle of movement which is 
male in all living beings is better and more divine," is an idea that 
expresses a will to power that goes beyond all of what is known. In 
attributing his posterity exclusively to himself, man frees himself 
definitively from subjugation by women, and he triumphs over 
woman in the domination of the world. Doomed to procreation and 
secondary tasks, stripped of her practical importance and her mystical 
prestige, woman becomes no more than a servant. 

Men represented this triumph as the outcome of a violent struggle. 
One of the most ancient cosmologies, belonging to the Assyro- 
Babylonians, tells of their victory in a text that dates from the seventh 
century but that recounts an even older legend. The Sun and the Sea, 
Aton and Tiamat, gave birth to the celestial world, the terrestrial 
world, and the great gods; but finding them too turbulent, they 
decided to destroy them; and Tiamat, the woman-mother, led the 
struggle against the strongest and most fine-looking of her 
descendants, Bel-Marduk; he, having challenged her in combat, killed 
her and slashed her body in two after a frightful battle; with one half 
he made the vault of heaven, and with the other the foundation for the 
terrestrial world; then he gave order to the universe and created 
humanity. In the Eumenides drama, which illustrated the triumph of 
patriarchy over maternal right, Orestes also assassinates Clytemnestra. 
Through these bloody victories, the virile force and the solar forces of 
order and light win over feminine chaos. By absolving Orestes, the 
tribunal of the gods proclaims he is the son of Agamemnon before 
being the son of Clytemnestra. The old maternal right is dead: the 
audacious male revolt killed it. But we have seen that in reality, the 
passage to paternal rights took place through gradual transitions. 
Masculine conquest was a reconquest: man only took possession of 
that which he already possessed; he put law into harmony with reality. 
There was neither struggle, nor victory, nor defeat. Nevertheless, 
these legends have profound meaning. At the moment when man 
asserts himself as subject and freedom, the idea of the Other becomes 
mediatory. From this day on, the relationship with the Other is a 
drama; the existence of the Other is a threat and a danger. The ancient 
Greek philosophy, which Plato, on this point, does not deny, showed 


that alterity is the same as negation, thus Evil. To posit the Other is to 
define Manichaeism. This is why religions and their codes treat 
woman with such hostility. By the time humankind reaches the stage 
of writing its mythology and laws, patriarchy is definitively 
established: it is males who write the codes. It is natural for them to 
give woman a subordinate situation; one might imagine, however, that 
they would consider her with the same benevolence as children and 
animals. But no. Afraid of woman, legislators organize her 
oppression. Only the harmful aspects of the ambivalent virtues 
attributed to her are retained: from sacred she becomes unclean. Eve, 
given to Adam to be his companion, lost humankind; to punish men, 
the pagan gods invent women, and Pandora, the firstborn of these 
female creatures, is the one who unleashes all the evil that humanity 
endures. The Other is passivity confronting activity, diversity 
breaking down unity, matter opposing form, disorder resisting order. 
Woman is thus doomed to Evil. "There is a good principle that created 
order, light, and man and a bad principle that created chaos, darkness, 
and woman," says Pythagoras. The Laws of Manu define her as a vile 
being to be held in slavery. Leviticus assimilates her to beasts of 
burden, owned by the patriarch. The laws of Solon confer no rights 
on her. The Roman code puts her in guardianship and proclaims her 
"imbecility." Canon law considers her "the devil's gateway." The 
Koran treats her with the most absolute contempt. 

And yet Evil needs Good, matter needs the idea, and night needs 
light. Man knows that to satisfy his desires, to perpetuate his 
existence, woman is indispensable to him; he has to integrate her in 
society: as long as she submits to the order established by males, she 
is cleansed of her original stain. This idea is forcefully expressed in 
the Laws of Manu: "Whatever be the qualities of the man with whom 
a woman is united according to the law, such qualities even she 
assumes, like a river united with the ocean, and she is admitted after 
death to the same celestial paradise." The Bible too praises the 
"virtuous woman." Christianity, in spite of its loathing of the flesh, 
respects the devoted virgin and the chaste and docile wife. Within a 
religious group, woman can even hold an important religious position: 
Brahmani in India and Flaminica in Rome are as holy as their 
husbands; in a couple, the man is dominant, but both male and female 
principles remain essential to the childbearing function, to life, and to 


the social order. 

This very ambivalence of the Other, of the Female, will be reflected 
in the rest of her history; until our times she will be subordinated to 
men's will. But this will is ambiguous: by total annexation, woman 
will be lowered to the rank of a thing; of course, man attempts to 
cover with his own dignity what he conquers and possesses; in his 
eyes the Other retains some of her primitive magic; one of the 
problems he will seek to solve is how to make his wife both a servant 
and a companion; his attitude will evolve throughout the centuries, 
and this will also entail an evolution in woman's destiny. 1 1 

1 . "Hail, Earth, mother of all men, may you be fertile in the amis of God and filled with 
fruits for the use of man," says an old Anglo-Saxon incantation. 

2. For the Bhantas of India, or in Uganda, a sterile woman is considered dangerous for 
gardens. In Nicobar, it is believed that the harvest will be better if it is brought in by a 
pregnant woman. In Borneo, seeds are chosen and preserved by women. "One seems to 
feel in women a natural affinity with the seeds that are said by the women to be in a 
state of pregnancy. Sometimes women will spend the night in the rice fields during its 
growth period" (Hose and MacDougall). In India of yore, naked women pushed the 
plow through the field at night. Indians along the Orinoco left the sowing and 
planting to women because "women knew how to conceive seed and bear children, so 
the seeds and roots planted by them bore fruit far more abundantly than if they had 
been planted by male hands" (Frazer). Many similar examples can be found in Frazer. 

3. It will be seen that this distinction has been perpetuated. Periods that regard woman 
as Other are those that refuse most harshly to integrate her into society as a human 
being. Today she only becomes an other peer by losing her mystical aura. 
Antifeminists have always played on this ambiguity. They readily agree to exalt the 
woman as Other in order to make her alterity absolute and irreducible, and to refuse her 
access to the human Mitsein. 

4. Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship. 
5. Ibid. 

6. In Levi-Strauss 's thesis already cited, there is, in a slightly different form, a 
confirmation of this idea. What comes out of this study is that the prohibition of 
incest is in no way the primal factor underlying exogamy; but it reflects the positive 
desire for exogamy in a negative form. There is no intrinsic reason that it be improper 
for a woman to have intercourse with men in her clan; but it is socially useful that she 
be part of the goods by which each clan, instead of closing in on itself, establishes a 


reciprocal relationship with another clan: "Exogamy has a value less negative than 
positive ... it prohibits endogamous marriage ... certainly not because a biological 
danger is attached to consanguineous marriage, but because exogamous marriage 
results in a social benefit." The group should not for its own private purposes 
consume women who constitute one of its possessions, but should use them as an 
instrument of communication; if marriage with a woman of the same clan is forbidden, 
"the sole reason is that she is same whereas she must (and therefore can) become 
other ... the same women that were originally offered can be exchanged in return. All 
that is necessary on either side is the sign of otherness, which is the outcome of a 
certain position in a structure and not of any innate characteristic." 

7. Of course, this condition is necessary but not sufficient: there are patrilineal 
civilizations immobilized in a primitive stage; others, like the Mayas, regressed. There 
is no absolute hierarchy between societies of maternal right and those of paternal 
right: but only the latter have evolved technically and ideologically. 

8. It is interesting to note (according to H. Begouen, Journal of Psychology, 1934) that 
in the Aurignacian period there were numerous statuettes representing women with 
overly emphasized sexual attributes: they are noteworthy for their plumpness and the 
size accorded to their vulvas. Moreover, grossly sketched vulvas on their own were 
also found in caves. In the Solutrean and Magdalenian epochs, these effigies 
disappear. In the Aurignacian, masculine statuettes are very rare, and there are never 
any representations of the male organ. In the Magdalenian epoch, some representations 
of vulvas are still found, though in small quantities, but a great quantity of phalluses 
was discovered. 

9. See Part One, Chapter 3, in this volume. 

10. In the same way that woman was identified with furrows, the phallus was identified 
with the plow, and vice versa. In a drawing representing a plow from the Kassite period, 
there are traces of the symbols of the generative act; afterward, the phallus-plow 
identity was frequently reproduced in art forms. The word la k in some Austro-Asian 
languages designates both phallus and plow. An Assyrian prayer addresses a god 
whose "plow fertilized the earth." 

1 1 . We will examine this evolution in the Western world. The history of the woman in 
the East, in India, and in China was one of long and immutable slavery. From the 
Middle Ages to today, we will center this study on France, where the situation is 



Once woman is dethroned by the advent of private property, her fate 
is linked to it for centuries: in large part, her history is intertwined 
with the history of inheritance. The fundamental importance of this 
institution becomes clear if we keep in mind that the owner alienated 
his existence in property; it was more important to him than life itself; 
it goes beyond the strict limits of a mortal lifetime, it lives on after the 
body is gone, an earthly and tangible incarnation of the immortal soul; 
but this continued survival can occur only if property remains in the 
owner's hands: it can remain his after death only if it belongs to 
individuals who are extensions of himself and recognized, who are 
his own. Cultivating paternal lands and worshipping the father's spirit 
are one and the same obligation for the heir: to ensure the survival of 
ancestors on earth and in the underworld. Man will not, therefore, 
agree to share his property or his children with woman. He will never 
really be able to go that far, but at a time when patriarchy is powerful, 
he strips woman of all her rights to hold and transmit property. It 
seems logical, in fact, to deny her these rights. If it is accepted that a 
woman's children do not belong to her, they inevitably have no link 
with the group the woman comes from. Woman is no longer passed 
from one clan to another through marriage: she is radically abducted 
from the group she is born into and annexed to her husband's; he 
buys her like a head of cattle or a slave, he imposes his domestic 
divinities on her: and the children she conceives belong to her 
spouse's family. If she could inherit, she would thus wrongly 
transmit her paternal family's riches to that of her husband: she is 
carefully excluded from the succession. But inversely, because she 
owns nothing, woman is not raised to the dignity of a person; she 
herself is part of man's patrimony, first her father's and then her 
husband's. Under a strictly patriarchal regime, a father can condemn 
to death his male and female children at birth; but in the case of a male 
child, society most often put limits on this power: a normally 
constituted newborn male is allowed to live, whereas the custom of 


exposure is very widespread for girls; there was massive infanticide 
among Arabs: as soon as they were born, girls were thrown into 
ditches. Accepting a female child is an act of generosity on the 
father's part; the woman enters such societies only through a kind of 
grace bestowed on her, and not legitimately like males. In any case, 
the stain of birth is far more serious for the mother when a girl is 
born: among Hebrews, Leviticus demands twice as much cleansing as 
for a newborn boy. In societies where "blood money" exists, only a 
small sum is required when the victim is of the feminine sex: her 
value compared with a male's is like a slave's with a free man's. 
When she is a young girl, the father has total power over her; on her 
marriage he transmits it entirely to her spouse. Since she is his 
property like the slave, the beast of burden, or the thing, it is natural 
for a man to have as many wives as he wishes; only economic 
reasons put limits on polygamy; the husband can disown his wives at 
whim, and society barely accords them any guarantees. In return, 
woman is subjected to rigorous chastity. In spite of the taboos, 
matriarchal societies allow great freedom of behavior; prenuptial 
chastity is rarely demanded; and adultery not judged severely. On the 
contrary, when woman becomes man's property, he wants a virgin, 
and he demands total fidelity at the risk of severe penalty; it would be 
the worst of crimes to risk giving heritage rights to a foreign 
offspring: this is why the paterfamilias has the right to put a guilty 
wife to death. As long as private property lasts, conjugal infidelity on 
the part of a woman is considered a crime of high treason. All codes 
up to our time have perpetuated inequality in issues concerning 
adultery, arguing the seriousness of the fault committed by the woman 
who might bring an illegitimate child into the family. And though the 
right to take the law into one's own hands has been abolished since 
Augustus, the Napoleonic Code still holds out the promise of the 
jury's leniency for a husband who avenges himself. When woman 
belonged to both a patrilineal clan and a conjugal family, she was able 
to preserve a good amount of freedom, as the two series of bonds 
overlapped and even conflicted with each other and as each system 
served to support her against the other: for example, she could often 
choose the husband of her fancy, since marriage was only a secular 
event and had no effect on society's deep structure. But under the 
patriarchal regime, she was the property of a father who married her 


off as he saw fit; then attached to her husband's household, she was 
no more than his thing and the thing of the family (genos) in which 
she was placed. 

When family and private patrimony incontestably remain the bases 
of society, woman also remains totally alienated. This is what has 
happened in the Muslim world. The structure is feudal in that there 
has never been a state strong enough to unify and dominate the 
numerous tribes: no power holds in check that of the patriarch chief. 
The religion that was created when the Arab people were warriors and 
conquerors professed the utmost disdain toward women. "Men are 
superior to women on account of the qualities with which God has 
gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make 
from their substance for them," says the Koran; the woman has never 
held real power or mystic prestige. The bedouin woman works hard, 
she plows and carries burdens: this is how she sets up a reciprocal 
bond with her husband; she moves around freely, her face uncovered. 
The Muslim woman, veiled and shut in, is still today a kind of slave 
in most levels of society. I recall an underground cave in a troglodyte 
village in Tunisia where four women were squatting: the old, one- 
eyed, and toothless wife, her face ravaged, was cooking dough on a 
small brazier surrounded by acrid smoke; two slightly younger but 
equally disfigured wives were rocking children in their arms; one was 
breastfeeding; seated before a weaver's loom was a young idol, 
magnificently dressed in silk, gold, and silver, knotting strands of 
wool. Leaving this gloomy den — realm of immanence, womb, and 
tomb — in the corridor leading up toward the light, I met the male, 
dressed in white, sparklingly clean, smiling, sunny. He was returning 
from the market, where he had bantered about world affairs with other 
men; he would spend a few hours in this retreat of his own, in the 
heart of this vast universe to which he belonged and from which he 
was not separated. For the old withered creatures, for the young bride 
doomed to the same degeneration, there was no other universe but the 
murky cave from which they would emerge only at night, silent and 

The Jews of biblical times have more or less the same customs as 
the Arabs. The patriarchs are polygamous and can renounce their 
wives almost at whim; at the risk of harsh punishment, the young 
bride has to be delivered to her spouse as a virgin; in cases of 


adultery, she is stoned; she is confined to domestic labor, as the image 
of virtuous women demonstrates: "She seeketh wool and flax ... she 
riseth also while it is yet night ... her candle goeth not off at 
night ... she eateth not the bread of idleness." Even chaste and 
industrious, she is impure and burdened with taboos; she cannot 
testify in court. Ecclesiastes treats her with the deepest disgust: "And I 
find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, 
and her hands as bands . . . one man among a thousand have I found; 
but a woman among all those have I not found." When her husband 
dies, custom and even law require her to marry a brother of the 

This custom called levirate is found among many Oriental peoples. 
In all regimes where woman is under guardianship, one of the 
problems is what to do with widows. The most radical solution is to 
sacrifice them on their husbands' tombs. But it is not true that even in 
India the law imposes such holocausts; the Laws of Manu permit a 
wife to survive a husband; spectacular suicides have never been more 
than an aristocratic fashion. It is far more frequent for the widow to be 
handed over to her husband's heirs. The levirate sometimes takes the 
form of polyandry; to avoid the ambiguities of widowhood, all the 
brothers in the family become the husbands of the woman, a custom 
that serves to preserve the clan against the possible infertility of the 
husband. According to a text of Caesar's, in Brittany all the men of 
one family had a certain number of women in common. 

This form of radical patriarchy was not established everywhere. In 
Babylon, Hammurabi's Code recognized certain rights of woman: she 
receives a share of the paternal inheritance, and when she marries, her 
father provides her with a dowry. In Persia, polygamy is customary; 
woman is bound to absolute obedience to the husband her father 
chooses for her as soon as she is nubile; but she is more respected 
than among most Oriental peoples; incest is not forbidden, and 
marriage takes place frequently among sisters and brothers; she is in 
charge of educating the children up to the age of seven for boys and 
until marriage for girls. Woman can share in her husband's estate if 
the son proves himself unworthy; if she is a "privileged wife," she is 
entrusted with the guardianship of minor children in the case of her 
husband's death and with the business management in the absence of 
an adult son. The rules of marriage clearly point out the importance 


posterity has for the head of a family. It is likely that there were five 
forms of marriage: 1 (1) The woman married with the consent of her 
parents; she was then called the "privileged wife"; her children 
belonged to her husband. (2) When the woman was an only child, her 
firstborn would be given up to her parents to replace their daughter; 
then she would become a "privileged wife." (3) If a man died 
unmarried, his family would take a woman from outside, give her a 
dowry, and marry her: she was called an "adopted wife"; half of her 
children belonged to the deceased and the other half to the living 
husband. (4) A widow without children who remarried was called a 
servant wife: she owed half of the children of her second marriage to 
her deceased husband. (5) The woman who married without the 
consent of her parents could not inherit from them until the oldest son, 
coming of age, would give her to his father as a "privileged wife"; if 
her husband died before, she was considered a minor and put under 
guardianship. The status of the adopted wife and the servant wife 
establishes the right of every man to be survived by descendants who 
are not necessarily connected by a blood relationship. This confirms 
what was said above; this relationship was in a way invented by man 
when he sought to annex for himself — beyond his finite life — 
immortality in this world and in the underworld. 

In Egypt, woman's condition was the most favorable. When 
Goddess Mothers married, they maintained their standing; social and 
religious unity resides in the couple; woman is an ally, a complement 
to man. Her magic is so unthreatening that even the fear of incest is 
overcome, and no differentiation is made between a sister and a 
spouse. 2 She has the same rights as men, the same legal power; she 
inherits, and she owns property. This uniquely fortunate situation is in 
no way haphazard: it stems from the fact that in ancient Egypt the land 
belonged to the king and the higher castes of priests and warriors; for 
private individuals, landed property was only usufructuary; the land 
was inalienable, property transmitted by inheritance had little value, 
and there was no problem about sharing it. Because of this absence of 
personal patrimony, woman maintained the dignity of a person. She 
married whom she wanted, and as a widow she could remarry as she 
wished. The male practiced polygamy, but although all of his children 
were legitimate, he had only one real wife, the only one associated 
with religion and linked to him legally: the others were mere slaves, 


deprived of all rights. The chief wife did not change status by 
marrying: she remained mistress of her possessions and was free to 
engage in contracts. When the pharaoh Bocchoris established private 
property, woman's position was too strong to be dislodged; 
Bocchoris opened the era of contracts, and marriage itself became 
contractual. There were three types of contracts: one dealt with servile 
marriage; woman became man's thing, but she could specify that he 
would not have a concubine other than her; nonetheless, the legal 
spouse was considered equal to man, and all their property was held 
in common; the husband would often agree to pay her a sum of 
money in the case of divorce. Later, this custom led to a type of 
contract remarkably favorable to women; the husband agreed to 
absolve her of her debt. There were serious punishments for adultery, 
but divorce was fairly open for the two spouses. The presence of 
contracts soundly restrained polygamy; women got possession of the 
wealth and transmitted it to their children, which brought about the 
creation of a plutocratic class. Ptolemy Philopator decreed that women 
could no longer alienate their property without marital authorization, 
which kept them as eternal minors. But even in times when they had a 
privileged status, unique in the ancient world, they were not socially 
equal to men; taking part in religion and government, they could have 
the role of regent, but the pharaoh was male; priests and warriors 
were males; woman's role in public life was a secondary one; and in 
private life, fidelity was required of her without reciprocity. 

The customs of the Greeks are very similar to Oriental ones; yet 
they do not practice polygamy. No one knows exactly why. 
Maintaining a harem always entails heavy costs: only the ostentatious 
Solomon, the sultans from The Thousand and One Nights, kings, 
chiefs, or rich property owners could afford the luxury of a vast 
seraglio; an ordinary man had to be satisfied with three or four 
women; a peasant rarely possessed more than two. Besides — except 
in Egypt, where there was no specific landed property — the concern 
for preserving the patrimony intact led to granting the oldest son 
special rights on paternal inheritance; from this stemmed a hierarchy 
among women, the mother of the principal heir invested with dignity 
far superior to that of his other wives. If the wife herself has property 
of her own or if she is dowered, she is considered a person by her 
husband: he is joined to her by both a religious and an exclusive 


bond. From there on, the custom that only recognizes one wife was 
undoubtedly established: but the reality was that the Greek citizen 
continued to be comfortably "polygamous" since he could find the 
satisfaction of his desires from street prostitutes or gynaeceum 
servants. "We have hetarias for spiritual pleasures," says 
Demosthenes, "concubines (pallakes) for sensual pleasure, and wives 
to give us sons." The pallakis replaced the wife in the master's bed if 
she was ill, indisposed, pregnant, or recovering from childbirth; so 
there was no great difference between a gynaeceum and a harem. In 
Athens, the wife is shut up in her quarters, held by law under severe 
constraint, and watched over by special magistrates. She spends her 
whole life as a minor; she is under the control of her guardian: either 
her father, or her husband, or her husband's heir or, by default, the 
state, represented by public officials; here are her masters, and they 
use her like merchandise, the guardian's control extending over both 
her person and her property; the guardian can transmit her rights as he 
wishes: the father gives his daughter up for adoption or in marriage; 
the husband can repudiate his wife and hand her over to another 
husband. But Greek law assures woman of a dowry used to support 
her and that must be restored in full to her if the marriage is dissolved; 
the law also authorizes the woman to file for divorce in certain rare 
cases; but these are the only guarantees that society grants. Of course, 
all inheritance is bequeathed to the male children, and the dowry is 
considered not acquired property but a kind of duty imposed on the 
guardian. However, thanks to this dowry custom, the widow no 
longer passes for a hereditary possession in the hands of her 
husband's heirs: she returns to her family's guardianship. 

One of the problems arising from societies based on agnation is the 
fate of inheritance in the absence of any male descendants. The 
Greeks had instituted the custom of epiklerate: the female heir had to 
marry her oldest relative in the paternal family (genos); thus the 
property her father bequeathed to her would be transmitted to children 
belonging to the same group, and the estate remained the property of 
the paternal genos; the epikleros was not a female heir but only a 
machine to procreate a male heir; this custom placed her entirely at 
man's mercy as she was automatically handed over to the firstborn of 
her family's men, who most often turned out to be an old man. 

Since the cause of women's oppression is found in the resolve to 


perpetuate the family and keep the patrimony intact, if she escapes the 
family, she escapes this total dependence as well; if society rejects the 
family by denying private property, woman's condition improves 
considerably. Sparta, where community property prevailed, was the 
only city-state where the woman was treated almost as the equal of 
man. Girls were brought up like boys; the wife was not confined to 
her husband's household; he was only allowed furtive nocturnal 
visits; and his wife belonged to him so loosely that another man could 
claim a union with her in the name of eugenics: the very notion of 
adultery disappears when inheritance disappears; as all the children 
belonged to the city as a whole, women were not jealously enslaved to 
a master: or it can be explained inversely, that possessing neither 
personal wealth nor individual ancestry, the citizen does not possess a 
woman either. Women underwent the burdens of maternity as men 
did war: but except for this civic duty, no restraints were put on their 

Along with the free women just discussed and slaves living within 
th egenos — unconditionally owned by the family head — are the 
prostitutes found in Greece. Primitive people were familiar with 
hospitality prostitution, turning over a woman to a guest passing 
through, which undoubtedly had mystical explanations; and with 
sacred prostitution, intended for the common good by releasing the 
mysterious forces of fertility. These customs existed in classical 
antiquity. Herodotus reports that in the fifth century B.c, every woman 
in Babylon had to give herself once in her life to a stranger in the 
temple of Mylitta for a coin she contributed to the temple's coffers; 
she then returned home to live in chastity. Religious prostitution has 
continued to our day among Egyptian almahs and Indian bayaderes, 
who make up respectable castes of musicians and dancers. But most 
often, in Egypt, India, and western Asia, sacred prostitution slipped 
into legal prostitution, the priestly class finding this trade profitable. 
There were venal prostitutes even among the Hebrews. In Greece, 
especially along the coast or on the islands where many foreigners 
stopped off, temples of "young girls hospitable to strangers," as 
Pindar called them, could be found: the money they earned was 
intended for religious establishments, that is, for priests and indirectly 
for their maintenance. In reality, in a hypocritical way, sailors' and 
travelers' sexual needs — in Corinth and other places — were exploited; 


and this was already venal prostitution. Solon was the one who turned 
this into an institution. He bought Asian slaves and shut them up in 
dicterions located in Athens near the temple of Venus, not far from 
the port, under the management of pornotropos in charge of the 
financial administration of the establishment; each girl received wages, 
and the net profit went to the state. After that, kapaileia, private 
establishments, were opened: a red Priapus served as their display 
sign. Soon, in addition to slaves, poor Greek women were taken in as 
residents. The dicterions were considered so necessary that they were 
recognized as inviolable places of asylum. Nonetheless, courtesans 
were marked with infamy, they had no social rights, and their children 
were exempted from providing for them; they had to wear specific 
outfits made of multicolored cloth decorated with flower bouquets, 
and their hair was dyed with saffron. Besides the women shut up in 
dicterions, there were free courtesans, who could be placed in three 
categories: dicteriads, much like today's registered prostitutes; 
auletrids, who were dancers and flute players; and hetaeras, 
demimondaines who often came from Corinth having had official 
liaisons with high-ranking Greek men and who played the social role 
of modern-day "worldly women." The first ones were found among 
freed women or lower-class Greek girls; exploited by procurers, they 
led a pitiful life. The second type succeeded in getting rich thanks to 
their musical talent: the most famous of all was Lamia, mistress of 
Ptolemy of Egypt, then of his vanquisher, the king of Macedonia, 
Demetrius Poliorcetes. As for the last category, many were well- 
known for sharing in the glory of their lovers. Disposing of 
themselves and their fortunes freely, intelligent, cultivated, and artistic, 
they were treated like persons by the men who were captivated by 
their charms. And because they escaped from their families, because 
they lived on the margins of society, they also escaped men: they 
could seem to be their counterparts, almost their equals. In Aspasia, in 
Phryne, and in Lais, the superiority of the free woman asserted itself 
over the virtuous mother of a family. 

These brilliant exceptions aside, the Greek woman is reduced to 
semi-slavery; she does not even have the freedom to complain: 
Aspasia and the more passionate Sappho are barely able to make a 
few grievances heard. In Homer, there are remnants of the heroic 
period when women had some power: still, the warriors roundly send 


them off to their chambers. The same scorn is found in Hesiod: "He 
who confides in a woman confides in a thief." In the great classical 
period, woman is resolutely confined to the gynaeceum. "The best 
woman is she of whom men speak the least," said Pericles. Plato, 
who proposed admitting a council of matrons to the Republic's 
administration and giving girls a liberal education, is an exception; he 
provoked Aristophanes' raillery; to a woman who questions him 
about public affairs, a husband responds, mLysistrata: "This is none 
of your business. Shut up, or you'll be beaten ... go back to your 
weaving." Aristotle expresses the common point of view in declaring 
that woman is woman because of a deficiency, that she must live 
closed up at home and obey man. "The slave is entirely deprived of 
the freedom to deliberate; woman does have it, but she is weak and 
powerless," he states. According to Xenophon, a woman and her 
spouse are complete strangers to each other: "Are there people you 
communicate with less than your wife? — There are not many"; all that 
is required of a woman in Oeconomicus is to be an attentive, prudent, 
economical housewife, busy as a bee, a model of organization. The 
modest status to which women are reduced does not keep the Greeks 
from being deeply misogynist. In the seventh century B.C., 
Archilochus writes biting epigrams against women; Simonides of 
Amorgos says, "Women are the greatest evil God ever created: if they 
sometimes seem useful, they soon change into trouble for their 
masters." For Hipponax: "There are but two days in life when your 
wife brings you joy: her wedding day and her funeral." But it is the 
Ionians who, in Miletus 's stories, are the most spiteful: for example, 
the tale of the matron of Ephesus. Mostly women are attacked for 
being lazy, shrewish, or spendthrift, in fact precisely the absence of 
the qualities demanded of them. "There are many monsters on the 
earth and in the sea, but the greatest is still woman," wrote Menander. 
"Woman is a pain that never goes away." When the institution of the 
dowry brought a certain importance to women, it was her arrogance 
that was deplored; this is one of Aristophanes' — and notably 
Menander 's — familiar themes. "I married a witch with a dowry. I 
took her for her fields and her house, and that, O Apollo, is the worst 
of evils!" "Damn him who invented marriage and then the second, the 
third, the fourth, and the rest who followed them." "If you are poor 
and you marry a rich woman, you will be reduced to being both a 


slave and poor." The Greek woman was too closely controlled to be 
attacked for her conduct; and it was not the flesh in her that was 
vilified. It was more the responsibilities and duties of marriage that 
weighed on men; this leads to the supposition that in spite of her 
rigorous conditions, and although she had almost no recognized 
rights, she must have held an important place in the household and 
enjoyed some authority; doomed to obedience, she could disobey; she 
could bombard her husband with tantrums, tears, nagging, and 
insults; marriage, meant to enslave woman, was a ball and chain for 
the husband as well. In the character of Xanthippe is embodied all the 
grievances of the Greek citizen against the shrewish wife and the 
adversities of conjugal life. 

The conflict between family and state defines the history of the 
Roman woman. The Etruscans constituted a matrilineal filiation 
society, and it is probable that at the time of the monarchy Rome still 
practiced exogamy linked to a matriarchal regime: the Latin kings did 
not transmit power through heredity. What is certain is that after 
Tarquinius's death, patriarchy asserts itself: agricultural property and 
the private estate — thus the family — become society's nucleus. 
Woman will be strictly subservient to the patrimony and thus to the 
family group: laws deprive her of even those guarantees accorded to 
Greek women; she lives her life in powerlessness and servitude. She 
is, of course, excluded from public affairs and prohibited from any 
"masculine office"; she is a perpetual minor in civil life. She is not 
directly deprived of her paternal inheritance but, through circuitous 
means, is kept from using it: she is put under the authority of a 
guardian. "Guardianship was established in the interest of the 
guardians themselves," said Gaius, "so that woman — of whom they 
are the presumptive heirs — could not rob them of their inheritance 
with a will, nor diminish the inheritance by alienations or debts." 
Woman's first guardian is her father; in his absence, paternal male 
relatives fulfill that function. When the woman marries, she passes 
"into the hands" of her husband; there are three types of marriage: the 
confarreatio, where the spouses offer a spelt cake to the Capitoline 
Jupiter in the presence of the flamen dialis; the coemptio, a fictitious 
sale in which the plebeian father "mancipated" his daughter to her 


husband; and the usus, the result of a cohabitation of one year; all 
three were with manu, meaning that the male spouse replaces the 
father or his male relatives; his wife is considered one of his 
daughters, and he thenceforth has complete power over her person 
and her property. But from the time of the Law of the Twelve Tables, 
because the Roman woman belonged to both paternal and conjugal 
clans, conflicts arose, giving rise to her legal emancipation. As a 
result, the mam/ marriage dispossesses her male agnates. To defend 
the paternal relatives' interests, sine manu marriage comes into being; 
in this case, the woman's property remains under the guardians' 
control, and the husband's rights are only over her person; and even 
this power is shared with the paterfamilias, who keeps his daughter 
under his absolute authority. The family court is in charge of settling 
disputes arising between father and husband: such an institution gives 
the woman recourse from her father to her husband or from her 
husband to her father; she is not one individual's thing. Moreover, 
although a gens is very powerful — as the existence of this court 
proves — independent of public courts, the father, as head of the 
family, is above all a citizen: his authority is unlimited, he rules 
absolutely over wife and children; but they are not his property; 
rather, he administers their existence for the public good; the woman, 
who brings his children into the world and whose domestic duties 
often extend to agricultural tasks, is very useful to the country and 
deeply respected. Here is an important fact that recurs throughout 
history: abstract rights cannot sufficiently define the concrete situation 
of woman; this situation depends in great part on the economic role 
she plays; and very often, abstract freedom and concrete powers vary 
inversely. Legally more enslaved than the Greek woman, the Roman 
is more deeply integrated in society; at home she sits in the atrium, 
which is the center of the domicile, rather than being relegated to the 
gynaeceum; it is she who presides over the slaves' work; she 
oversees the children's education, and her influence on them often 
extends to an advanced age; she shares her husband's work and his 
concerns, she is considered a co-owner of his property; the marriage 
formula "Ubi tu Gains, ego Gaia" is not an empty formula;* the 
matron is called domina; she is mistress of the home, associate in 
religion, not a slave but man's companion; the tie that unites her to 
him is so sacred that in five centuries not one divorce is recorded. She 


is not confined to her quarters: she is present at meals and 
celebrations, she goes to the theater; men give her right-of-way on the 
street, consuls and lictors stand aside for her. Legend accords her an 
eminent role in history: those of the Sabine women, Lucretia, and 
Virginia are well-known; Coriolanus yields to the supplications of his 
mother's and his wife's pleas; the law of Licinius consecrating the 
triumph of Roman democracy is said to have been inspired by his 
wife; Cornelia forges the soul of the Gracchi. "Everywhere men 
govern women," said Cato, "and we who govern all men are 
governed by our women." 

Little by little the legal situation of Roman women adapts to their 
practical situation. During the patrician oligarchy, each paterfamilias is 
an independent ruler within the Republic; but when state power 
becomes established, it opposes the concentration of wealth and the 
arrogance of powerful families. Family courts bow to public justice. 
And woman acquires ever greater rights. Four powers originally 
limited her freedom: the father and the husband controlled her person, 
her guardian and manus her property. The state takes authority over 
the opposition of father and husband to restrict their rights: the state 
court will now rule over adultery cases, divorce, and so on. In the 
same way, guardians and manus destroy each other. In the interest of 
the guardian, the manus had already been separated from marriage; 
later, the manus becomes an expedient that women use to escape their 
guardians, either by contracting fictitious marriages or by securing 
obliging guardians from their father or from the state. Under imperial 
legislation, guardianship will be entirely abolished. Woman 
simultaneously gains a positive guarantee of her independence: her 
father is obliged to provide her with a dowry; and it will not go back 
to the agnates after the marriage's dissolution, nor does it ever belong 
to her husband; a woman can at any moment demand restitution by a 
sudden divorce, which puts man at her mercy. "In accepting the 
dowry, he sold his power," said Plautus. From the end of the 
Republic on, the mother's right to her children's respect was 
recognized as equal to the father's; she is granted custody of her 
children in case of guardianship or of the husband's bad conduct. 
When she had three children and the deceased had no heirs, a Senate 
decree, under Hadrian, entitled her to an ab intestat succession right 
for each of them. And under Marcus Aurelius the Roman family's 


evolution was completed: from 178 on, the mother's children become 
her heirs, over her male relatives; from then on, the family is based on 
coniunctio sanguinis, and the mother is equal to the father; the 
daughter inherits like her brothers. 

Nevertheless, the history of Roman law shows a tendency that 
contradicts the one just described: rendering the woman independent 
of the family, the central power takes her back under its guardianship 
and subjects her to various legal restraints. 

In fact, she would assume an unsettling importance if she could be 
both rich and independent; so what is conceded with one hand is 
taken away from her with the other. The Oppian Law that banned 
luxury was voted when Hannibal threatened Rome; when the danger 
passed, women demanded its abrogation; in a famous speech, Cato 
asked that it be upheld: but a demonstration by matrons assembled in 
the public square carried the repeal against him. More severe laws 
were proposed as mores loosened, but without great success: they did 
little more than give rise to fraud. Only the Velleian Senate decree 
triumphed, forbidding woman to "intercede" for others, 3 depriving 
her of nearly every legal capacity. It is when woman is probably the 
most emancipated that the inferiority of her sex is proclaimed, a 
remarkable example of the male justification process already 
discussed: when her rights as girl, wife, or sister are no longer 
limited, she is refused equality with men because of her sex; the 
pretext for persecuting her becomes "imbecility and fragility of the 

The fact is that matrons did not put their newfound freedom to the 
best use; but it is also true that they were forbidden to take the best 
advantage of it. These two contradictory strains — an individualistic 
strain that tears woman from the family and a state-controlled strain 
that abuses her as an individual — result in an unbalanced situation for 
her. She can inherit, she has equal rights with the father concerning 
the children, she can will her property thanks to the institution of the 
dowry, she escapes conjugal restraints, she can divorce and remarry 
as she wishes: but she is emancipated only in a negative way because 
she is offered no employment for her vital forces. Economic 
independence remains abstract since it yields no political capacity; 
therefore, lacking the power to act, Roman women demonstrate: they 
cause a ruckus in towns, they besiege the courts, they brew, they 


foment plots, they lay down prescriptions, they inflame civil wars, 
they march along the Tiber carrying the statue of the Mother of the 
Gods, thus introducing Oriental divinities to Rome; in the year 114 
the scandal of the vestal virgins breaks out, and their college is then 
disbanded. As public life and virtue are out of reach, and when the 
dissolution of the family renders the former private virtues useless 
and outdated, there is no longer any moral code for women. They 
have two choices: either to respect the same values as their 
grandmothers or to no longer recognize any. The end of the first 
century and beginning of the second see numerous women living as 
companions and partners of their spouses, as in the time of the 
Republic: Plotina shares the glory and responsibilities of Trajan; 
Sabina becomes so famous for her good deeds that statues deify her 
while she is still alive; under Tiberius, Sextia refuses to live on after 
Aemilius Scaurus, and Pascea to live on after Pomponius Labeus; 
Paulina opens her veins at the same time as Seneca; Pliny the 
Younger makes Arria's "Paete, non dolet" famous; Martial admires 
the irreproachable wives and devoted mothers Claudia Rufina, 
Virginia, and Sulpicia. But numerous women refuse motherhood, and 
many women divorce; laws continue to ban adultery: some matrons 
even go so far as to register as prostitutes to avoid being constrained 
in their debaucheries. 4 Until then, Latin literature had always 
respected women: then satirists went wild against them. They 
attacked, in fact, not women in general but mainly contemporary 
women. Juvenal reproaches their hedonism and gluttony; he accuses 
them of aspiring to men's professions: they take an interest in politics, 
immerse themselves in court cases, debate with grammarians and 
rhetoricians, develop passions for hunting, chariot racing, fencing, 
and wrestling. But in fact they rival men mainly because of their own 
taste for amusement and vice; they lack sufficient education for higher 
aims; and besides, no objective is even proposed to them; action 
remains forbidden to them. The Roman woman of the ancient 
Republic has a place on earth, but she is still chained to it by lack of 
abstract rights and economic independence; the Roman woman of the 
decline is typical of false emancipation, possessing, in a world where 
men are still the only masters, nothing but empty freedom: she is free 
"for nothing." 


1. This account is taken from Clement Huart^a Perse antique et la civilisation 
iranienne (Ancient Persia and Iranian Civilization). 

2. In some cases the brother had to marry his sister. 
* "Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia." — TRANS. 

3. That is, to enter into contracts with another. 

4. Rome, like Greece, officially tolerated prostitution. There were two categories of 
courtesans: those living closed up in brothels, and others, bonae meretrices , freely 
exercising their profession. They did not have the right to wear the clothing of 
matrons; they had a certain influence on fashion, customs, and art, but they never held 
a position as lofty as the hetaeras of Athens. 



The evolution of the feminine condition was not a continuous process. 
With the great invasions, all of civilization is put into question. Roman 
law itself is under the influence of a new ideology, Christianity; and in 
the centuries that follow, barbarians impose their laws. The economic, 
social, and political situation is overturned: and women's situation 
suffers the consequences. 

Christian ideology played no little role in women's oppression. 
Without a doubt, there is a breath of charity in the Gospels that spread 
to women as well as to lepers; poor people, slaves, and women are the 
ones who adhere most passionately to the new law. In the very early 
days of Christianity, women who submitted to the yoke of the Church 
were relatively respected; they testified along with men as martyrs; but 
they could nonetheless worship only in secondary roles; deaconesses 
were authorized only to do lay work: caring for the sick or helping the 
poor. And although marriage is considered an institution demanding 
mutual fidelity, it seems clear that the wife must be totally subordinate 
to the husband: through Saint Paul the fiercely antifeminist Jewish 
tradition is affirmed. Saint Paul commands self-effacement and 
reserve from women; he bases the principle of subordination of 
women to man on the Old and New Testaments. "The man is not of 
the woman; but the woman of the man"; and "Neither was man 
created for the woman; but the woman for the man." And elsewhere: 
"For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of 
the church." In a religion where the flesh is cursed, the woman 
becomes the devil's most fearsome temptation. Tertullian writes: 
"Woman! You are the devil's gateway. You have convinced the one 
the devil did not dare to confront directly. It is your fault that God's 
Son had to die. You should always dress in mourning and rags." 
Saint Ambrose: "Adam was led to sin by Eve and not Eve by Adam. 
It is right and just that he whom she led into sin, she shall receive as 
master." And Saint John Chrysostom: "Of all the wild animals, none 
can be found as harmful as woman." When canon law is written in the 


fourth century, marriage is treated as a concession to human failings, 
incompatible with Christian perfection. "Take up the hatchet and cut 
the roots of the sterile tree of marriage," writes Saint Jerome. In the 
time of Gregory VI, when celibacy was imposed on priests, woman's 
dangerous character was more harshly asserted: all the Fathers of the 
Church proclaim her wretchedness. Saint Thomas will remain true to 
this tradition, declaring that woman is only an "occasional" and 
incomplete being, a sort of failed man. "Man is the head of woman 
just as Christ is the head of man," he writes. "It is a constant that 
woman is destined to live under the authority of man and has no 
authority of her own." Thus, the only marriage regime canon law 
recognizes is by dowry, rendering woman helpless and powerless. 
Not only is she prohibited from male functions, but she is also barred 
from making court depositions, and her testimony holds no weight. 
The emperors are more or less under the influence of the Church 
Fathers; Justinian's legislation honors woman as spouse and mother 
but subjugates her to those functions; her helplessness is due not to 
her sex but to her situation within the family. Divorce is prohibited, 
and marriage has to be a public event; the mother has the same 
authority over her children as the father, and she has equal rights to 
their inheritance; if her husband dies, she becomes their legal tutor. 
The Velleian Senate decree is modified: from that time on she can 
intercede for the benefit of a third party; but she cannot contract for 
her husband; her dowry becomes inalienable; it is her children's 
patrimony, and she is forbidden to dispose of it. 

In barbarian-occupied territories, these laws are juxtaposed with 
Germanic traditions. The German customs were unique. They had 
chiefs only in wartime; in peacetime the family was an autonomous 
society; it seemed to be midway between matrilineal filiation clans and 
patriarchal gens; the mother's brother had the same power as the 
father and the same authority over their niece and daughter as her 
husband. In a society where all capacity was rooted in brute force, 
woman was entirely powerless; but the rights that were guaranteed to 
her by the twofold domestic powers on which she depended were 
recognized; subjugated, she was nonetheless respected; her husband 
purchased her, but the price of this purchase constituted a dowry that 
belonged to her; and besides, her father dowered her; she received her 
portion of the paternal inheritance and, in the case of parents being 


murdered, a portion of the fine paid by the murderer. The family was 
monogamous, adultery being severely punished and marriage 
respected. The woman still lived under wardship, but she was a close 
partner of her husband. "In peace and in war, she shares his lot; she 
lives with him, she dies with him," says Tacitus. She went to war 
with him, brought food to the soldiers, and encouraged them by her 
presence. As a widow, part of her deceased husband's power was 
transmitted to her. Since her incapacity was rooted in her physical 
frailty, it was not considered an expression of moral inferiority. Some 
women were priestesses and prophets, so it could be assumed that 
their education was superior to men's. Among the objects that legally 
reverted to women in questions of inheritance were, later, jewelry and 

This is the tradition that continues into the Middle Ages. The 
woman is absolutely dependent on her father and husband: during 
Clovis's time, the mundium weighs on her throughout her life;* but 
the Franks rejected Germanic chastity: under the Merovingians and 
Carolingians polygamy reigns; the woman is married without her 
consent and can be repudiated by her husband, who holds the right of 
life or death over her according to his whim. She is treated like a 
servant. Laws protect her but only inasmuch as she is the man's 
property and the mother of his children. Calling her a prostitute 
without having proof is considered an insult liable to a fine fifteen 
times more than any insult to a man; kidnapping a married woman is 
equivalent to a free man's murder; taking a married woman's hand or 
arm is liable to a fine of fifteen to thirty-five sous; abortion is 
forbidden under threat of a hundred-sou fine; murder of a pregnant 
woman costs four times that of a free man; a woman who has proved 
herself fertile is worth three times a free man; but she loses all worth 
when she can no longer be a mother; if she marries a slave, she 
becomes an outlaw, and her parents have the right to kill her. She has 
no rights as an individual. But while the state is becoming powerful, 
the shift that had occurred in Rome occurs here as well: the wardship 
of the disabled, children, and women no longer belongs to family law 
but becomes a public office; starting from Charlemagne, the mundium 
that weighs down the woman belongs to the king; he only intervenes 
at first in cases in which the woman is deprived of her natural 
guardians; then, little by little, he confiscates the family powers; but 


this change does not bring about the Frank woman's emancipation. 
The mundium becomes the guardian's responsibility; his duty is to 
protect his ward: this protection brings about the same slavery for 
woman as in the past. 

When feudalism emerges out of the convulsions of the early 
Middle Ages, woman's condition looks very uncertain. What 
characterizes feudal law is the confusion between sovereign and 
property law, between public and private rights. This explains why 
woman is both put down and raised up by this system. She first finds 
herself denied all private rights because she lacks political capacity. 
Until the eleventh century, order is based on force alone and property 
on armed power. A fief, legal experts say, is "property held against 
military service"; woman cannot hold feudal property, because she is 
incapable of defending it. Her situation changes when fiefs become 
hereditary and patrimonial; in Germanic law some aspects of maternal 
law survived, as has already been shown: if there were no male heirs, 
the daughter could inherit. This leads, around the eleventh century, to 
the feudal system's acceptance of female succession. However, 
military service is still required of the vassals; and woman's lot does 
not improve with her ability to inherit; she still needs a male guardian; 
the husband plays that role: he is invested with the title, holds the fief, 
and has the usufruct of the goods. Like the Greek epikleros, woman is 
the instrument and not the bearer through which the domain is 
transmitted; that does not emancipate her; in a way she is absorbed by 
the fief, she is part of the real property. The domain is no longer the 
family's thing as it was for Roman gens: it is the lord's property, and 
the woman also belongs to the lord. He is the one who chooses a 
spouse for her; when she has children, she gives them to him rather 
than to her husband: they will be vassals who will defend his 
property. She is therefore a slave of the domain and of its master 
through the "protection" of a husband who was imposed on her: few 
periods of history seem harsher for woman's lot. An heiress means 
land and a chateau: suitors fight over this prey, and the girl is 
sometimes not even twelve years old when her father or his lord gives 
her to some baron as a gift. The more marriages, the more domains 
for a man; and thus the more repudiations; the Church hypocritically 
authorizes them; as marriage was forbidden between relatives up to 
the seventh degree, and as kinship was defined by spiritual relations 


such as godmother and godfather as well as by blood relations, some 
pretext or other can always be found for an annulment; many women 
in the eleventh century were repudiated four or five times. Once 
widowed, the woman immediately has to accept a new master. In the 
chansons de geste Charlemagne has, all at once, the widows of his 
barons who had died in Spain remarry; in Girard de Vienne , the 
Burgundy duchess goes herself to the king to demand a new spouse. 
"My husband has just died, but what good is mourning? Find me a 
powerful husband because I need to defend my land"; many epics 
show the king or lord dealing tyrannically with girls and widows. 
One also sees the husband treating the woman given to him as a gift 
without any respect; he abuses and slaps her, drags her by her hair, 
and beats her; all that Beaumanoir in Coutumes de Beauvaisis 
(Customs of Beauvaisis) asks is that the husband "punish his wife 
reasonably." This warlike civilization has only scorn for women. The 
knight is not interested in women: his horse is a treasure of much 
higher value to him; in the epics, girls are always the ones to make the 
first step toward young men; once married, they alone are expected to 
be faithful; the man dissociates them from his life. "Cursed be the 
knight who takes counsel from a lady on when to joust." And in 
Renaud de Montauban, there is this diatribe: "Go back into your 
painted and golden quarters, sit ye down in the shade, drink, eat, 
embroider, dye silk, but do not busy yourself with our affairs. Our 
business is to fight with the sword and steel. Silence!" The woman 
sometimes shares the males' harsh life. As a girl, she excels in all 
physical exercises, she rides, hunts, hawks; she barely receives any 
education and is raised with no regard for modesty: she welcomes the 
chateau's guests, takes care of their meals and baths, and she 
"pleasures" them to sleep; as a woman, she sometimes has to hunt 
wild animals, undertake long and difficult pilgrimages; when her 
husband is far away, it is she who defends the seigneury. These ladies 
of the manor, called viragoes, are admired because they behave 
exactly like men: they are greedy, treacherous, and cruel, and they 
tyrannize their vassals. History and legend have bequeathed the 
memory of several of them: the chatelaine Aubie, after having a tower 
built higher than any donjon, then had the architect's head cut off so 
her secret would be kept; she chased her husband from his domain: he 
stole back and killed her. Mabel, Roger de Montgomerie's wife, 


delighted in reducing her seigneury's nobles to begging: their revenge 
was to decapitate her. Juliane, bastard daughter of Henry I of 
England, defended the chateau of Breteuil against him, luring him into 
an ambush for which he punished her severely. Such acts remain 
exceptional, however. Ordinarily, the lady spent her time spinning, 
praying for the dead, waiting for her spouse, and being bored. 

It has often been claimed that courtly love, born in the twelfth 
century in the Mediterranean south of France, brought about an 
improvement in woman's lot. There are several opposing hypotheses 
as to its origins: according to some people, "courtliness" comes from 
the lord's relations with his young vassals; others link it to Cathar 
heresies and the cult of the Virgin; still others say that profane love 
derives from the love of God in general. It is not so sure that courts of 
love ever existed. What is sure is that faced with Eve the sinner, the 
Church comes to glorify the Mother of the Redeemer: she has such a 
large following that in the thirteenth century it can be said that God 
was made woman; a mysticism of woman thus develops in religion. 
Moreover, leisure in chateau life enables the noble ladies to promote 
and nurture the luxury of conversation, politeness, and poetry; women 
of letters such as Beatrice de Valentino is, Eleanor of Aquitaine and 
her daughter Marie of France, Blanche of Navarre, and many others 
attract and patronize poets; first in the Midi and then in the North 
culture thrives, giving women new prestige. Courtly love was often 
described as platonic; Chretien de Troyes, probably to please his 
protector, banishes adultery from his novels: the only guilty love he 
depicts is that of Lancelot and Guinevere; but in fact, as the feudal 
husband was both a guardian and a tyrant, the wife sought a lover 
outside of marriage; courtly love was a compensation for the barbarity 
of official customs. "Love in the modern sense does not exist in 
antiquity except outside of official society," notes Engels: at the very 
point where antiquity broke off its penchant for sexual love, the 
Middle Ages took it up again with adultery. And this is the form that 
love will take as long as the institution of marriage lasts. 

While courtly love might ease woman's lot, it does not modify it 
substantially. Ideologies like religion and poetry do not lead to female 
liberation; woman gains a little ground at the end of the feudal age for 
other reasons entirely. When the supremacy of royal power is 
imposed on feudatories, the lord loses a large part of his rights: his 


right, in particular, to decide on his vassals' marriages is 
progressively suppressed; at the same time, the feudal lord loses the 
use of his ward's property; the benefits attached to wardship fall into 
disuse; and when the service of the fief is converted to a monetary fee, 
wardship itself disappears; woman was unable to perform military 
service, but she was as capable as a man of paying the financial 
obligations; the fief is then little more than a simple patrimony, and 
there is no longer any reason for the two sexes not to be placed on an 
equal footing. In fact, women in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy 
remain subjected to a perpetual wardship; but France accepts, in 
Beaumanoir's words, that "a girl is worth a man." Germanic tradition 
gave women a defender as a guardian; when she no longer needs a 
defender, she goes without a guardian; as a sex, she is no longer taxed 
with incapacity. Unmarried or widowed, she has all the rights of man; 
property grants her sovereignty: she governs the fief that she owns, 
meaning she dispenses justice, signs treaties, and decrees laws. She is 
even seen playing a military role, commanding troops, taking part in 
fighting; before Joan of Arc there were women soldiers, and however 
surprising La Pucelle is, she is not shocking. 

Nonetheless, so many factors converge to thwart woman's 
independence that they are never all abolished simultaneously; 
physical weakness is no longer an issue; but feminine subordination 
remains useful to society in cases where the woman is married. Thus 
marital power outlives the feudal regime. The paradox still being 
perpetuated today is established: the woman most fully integrated into 
society is the one with the fewest privileges in the society. In civil 
feudality, marriage has the same features as in military feudality: the 
husband remains the wife's guardian. When the bourgeoisie is 
formed, it observes the same laws. In common law as in feudal law, 
the only emancipation is outside marriage; the daughter and the 
widow have the same capacities as the man; but by marrying, the 
woman falls under the husband's guardianship and administration; he 
can beat her; he watches over her behavior, relations, and 
correspondence and disposes of her fortune, not through a contract, 
but by the very fact of marriage. "As soon as the marriage is 
consummated," Beaumanoir says, "the possessions of each party are 
held in common by virtue of the marriage and the man is the guardian 
of them." It is in the interest of property that the nobility and the 


bourgeoisie demand one master to administer it. The wife is not 
subordinated to the husband because she is judged basically 
incapable: when nothing else prevents it, woman's full capacities are 
recognized. From feudality to today, the married woman is 
deliberately sacrificed to private property. It is important to see that the 
greater the property owned by the husband, the greater this servitude: 
the propertied classes are those in which woman's dependence has 
always been the most concrete; even today, the patriarchal family 
survives among rich landowners; the more socially and economically 
powerful man feels, the more he plays the paterfamilias with 
authority. On the contrary, shared destitution makes the conjugal link 
reciprocal. Neither feudality nor the Church enfranchised woman. 
Rather, it was from a position of servitude that the patriarchal family 
moved to an authentically conjugal one. The serf and his wife owned 
nothing; they simply had the common use of their house, furniture, 
and utensils: man had no reason to want to become master of woman 
who owned nothing; but the bonds of work and interest that joined 
them raised the spouse to the rank of companion. When serfdom is 
abolished, poverty remains; in small rural communities and among 
artisans, spouses live on an equal footing; woman is neither a thing 
nor a servant: those are the luxuries of a rich man; the poor man 
experiences the reciprocity of the bond that attaches him to his other 
half; in freely contracted work, woman wins concrete autonomy 
because she has an economic and social role. The farces and fabliaux 
of the Middle Ages reflect a society of artisans, small merchants, and 
peasants in which the husband's only privilege over his wife is to be 
able to beat her: but she pits craftiness against force to reestablish 
equality. However, the rich woman pays for her idleness with 

In the Middle Ages, the woman still retained some privileges: she 
took part in local meetings in the villages, she participated in the 
primary meetings for the deputies' election to the Estates-General; her 
husband could exercise his own authority only over movables: his 
wife's consent was necessary to alienate real estate. The sixteenth 
century sees the codification of the laws perpetuated throughout the 
ancien regime; by that time feudal habits and customs had totally 
disappeared, and nothing protects women from men's claims that they 
should be chained to the household. The influence of Roman law, so 


condescending for women, can be perceived here; as in Roman times, 
the violent diatribes against the stupidity and fragility of the sex were 
not at the root of the code but are used as justifications; it is after the 
fact that men find reasons to act as it suits them. "Among all the bad 
characteristics that women possess," one reads in the Songe du 

I find that there are nine principal ones: To begin with, a woman 
hurts herself as a result of her own nature; second, women are 
by nature extremely stingy; third, they are driven by sudden 
whims; fourth, they are bad by their own volition; fifth, they are 
impostors. Women are known to be false, and according to civil 
law a woman may not be accepted as a witness to a will. A 
woman always does the opposite of what she is commanded to 
do ... Women accuse themselves willingly and announce their 
own vituperation and shame. They are crafty and malicious. 
Saint Augustine said that "A woman is a beast who is neither 
firm nor stable"; she is hateful, to the confusion of her husband; 
she nourishes wrongdoing and stands at the beginning of all the 
pleas and tensions; and is the path and road of all iniquity. 

Similar texts abound around this time. The interest of this one is that 
each accusation is meant to justify one of the provisions of the code 
against women and the inferior situation in which they are kept. 
Naturally, any "male office" is forbidden to them; the Velleian decree 
of the Senate is reinstated, depriving them of all civil capacity; 
birthright and masculine privilege place them second in line for the 
paternal inheritance. Unmarried, the daughter remains under the 
father's guardianship; if he does not marry her off, he generally sends 
her to a convent. An unwed mother has the right to seek out the 
father, but such a right merely provides for the costs of lying-in and 
the infant's food; a married woman becomes subject to the husband's 
authority: he determines the place of residence, directs the household, 
repudiates the adulteress wife, shuts her up in a monastery, or later 
obtains a lettre de cachet to send her to the Bastille;* no deed is valid 
without his authorization; everything the wife brings to the marriage 
becomes part of the dowry in the Roman meaning of the word; but as 
marriage is indissoluble, the husband has to die before the wife can 


recover her property, giving rise to the adage "Uxor non est proprie 
socia sed speratur fore."^ As she does not manage her capital, 
although she has rights to it, she does not have the responsibility for 
it; it does not provide any substance to her action: she has no concrete 
grasp on the world. Even her children belong to the father rather than 
to her, as in the time of the Eumenides : she "gives" them to her 
spouse, whose authority is far greater than hers and who is the real 
master of her posterity; even Napoleon will use this argument, 
declaring that just as a pear tree is the property of the owner of the 
pears, the wife is the property of the man to whom she provides 
children. The status of the French wife remains as such throughout 
the ancien regime; little by little jurisprudence will abolish the Velleian 
decree, but not until the Napoleonic Code does it disappear 
definitively. The husband is responsible for the wife's debts as well 
as her behavior, and she is accountable to him alone; she has almost 
no direct relations with public authorities or autonomous relations 
with anyone outside her family. She looks more like a servant in work 
and motherhood than an associate: objects, values, and human beings 
that she creates are not her own property but her family's, that is, 
man's, as he is the head. Her situation is far from being more liberal 
in other countries — it is, on the contrary, less liberal; some maintained 
guardianship; and in all of them, the married woman's capacities are 
nonexistent and moral standards strict. All the European codes were 
drafted on the basis of canon, Roman, and Germanic law, all were 
unfavorable to the woman, and all the countries recognized private 
property and the family, deferring to the demands of these institutions. 

In all these countries, one of the consequences of the "honest 
wife's" servitude to the family is prostitution. Hypocritically kept on 
society's fringes, prostitutes fill a highly important role. Christianity 
pours scorn on them but accepts them as a necessary evil. "Getting rid 
of the prostitutes," said Saint Augustine, "will trouble society by 
dissoluteness." Later, Saint Thomas — or at least the theologian that 
signed his name to Book IV of De regimine principium — asserted: 
"Remove public women from society and debauchery will disrupt it 
by disorder of all kinds. Prostitutes are to a city what a cesspool is to 
a palace: get rid of the cesspool and the palace will become an 
unsavory and loathsome place." In the early Middle Ages, moral 
license was such that women of pleasure were hardly necessary; but 


when the bourgeois family became institutionalized and monogamy 
rigorous, man obviously had to go outside the home for his pleasure. 

In vain did one of Charlemagne's capitularies vigorously forbid it, 
in vain did Saint Louis order prostitutes to be chased out of the city in 
1254 and brothels to be destroyed in 1269: in the town of Damietta, 
Joinville tells us, prostitutes' tents were adjacent to the king's. Later, 
attempts by Charles IX of France and Marie-Therese of Austria in the 
eighteenth century also failed. The organization of society made 
prostitution necessary. "Prostitutes," Schopenhauer would pompously 
say later, "are human sacrifices on the altar of monogamy." And 
Lecky, a historian of European morality, expressed the same idea: 
"Supreme type of vice, prostitutes are the most active guardians of 
virtue." Their situation and the Jews' were often rightly compared: 1 
usury and money lending were forbidden by the Church exactly as 
extra-conjugal sex was; but society can no more do without financial 
speculators than free love, so these functions fell to the damned 
castes: they were relegated to ghettos or reserved neighborhoods. In 
Paris, loose women worked in pens where they arrived in the 
morning and left after the curfew had tolled; they lived on special 
streets and did not have the right to stray, and in most other cities 
brothels were outside town walls. Like Jews, they had to wear 
distinctive signs on their clothes. In France the most common one was 
a specific-colored aglet hung on the shoulder; silk, fur, and honest 
women's apparel were often prohibited. They were by law taxed with 
infamy, had no recourse whatsoever to the police and the courts, and 
could be thrown out of their lodgings on a neighbor's simple claim. 
For most of them, life was difficult and wretched. Some were closed 
up in public houses. Antoine de Lalaing, a French traveler, left a 
description of a Spanish establishment in Valencia in the late fifteenth 
century. "The place," he said, was 

about the size of a small city, surrounded by walls with only one 
door. And in front of it there were gallows for criminals that 
might be inside; at the door, a man appointed to this task takes 
the canes of those wishing to enter and tells them that if they 
want to hand over their money, and if they have the money, he 
will give it to the porter. If it is stolen overnight, the porter will 
not answer for it. In this place there are three or four streets full 


of small houses, in each of which are prettily and cleanly dressed 
girls in velvet and satin. There are almost three hundred of them; 
their houses are well kept and decorated with good linens. The 
decreed price is four pennies of their money, which is the 
equivalent of our gros . . . There are taverns and cabarets. It is not 
easy to recognize these houses by daylight, while at night or in 
the evening the girls are seated at their doorways, with pretty 
lamps hanging near them in order to make it easier to see them at 
leisure. There are two doctors appointed and paid by the town to 
visit the girls every week in order to discover if they have any 
disease or intimate illness. If the town is stricken with any 
sickness, the lords of the place are required to maintain the girls 
at their expense and the foreigners are sent away to any place 
they wish to go. 2 

The author even marvels at such effective policing. Many prostitutes 
lived freely; some of them earned their living well. As in the period of 
the courtesans, high gallantry provided more possibilities for feminine 
individualism than the life of an "honest woman." 

A condition unique to France is that of the unmarried woman; legal 
independence is in stark and shocking contrast to the wife's servitude; 
she is an oddity and so customs hasten to withdraw everything law 
grants her; she has total civil capacity: but those laws are abstract and 
empty; she has no economic autonomy, no social dignity, and 
generally the spinster remains hidden in the shadow of the paternal 
family or finds others like her behind convent walls: there she knows 
no other form of freedom but disobedience and sin — just as decadent 
Roman women were emancipated only by vice. Negativity continues 
to be women's lot as long as their emancipation remains negative. 

In such conditions it is clear how rare it was for a wife to act or 
merely to make her presence felt: among the working classes, 
economic oppression cancels out sexual inequality; but it deprives the 
individual of opportunities; among the nobility and bourgeoisie, the 
wife is abused because of her sex; she has a parasitic existence; she is 
poorly educated; she needs exceptional circumstances if she is to 
envisage and carry out any concrete project. Queens and regents have 
that rare good fortune: their sovereignty exalts them above their sex; 
French Salic law denies women the right of access to the throne; but 


they sometimes play a great role beside their husbands or after their 
deaths: for example, Saint Clotilda, Saint Radegunda, and Blanche of 
Castile. Convent life makes woman independent of man: some 
abbesses wield great power; Heloi'se gained fame as an abbess as 
much as a lover. In the mystical, thus autonomous, relation that binds 
them to God, feminine souls draw their inspiration and force from a 
virile soul; and the respect society grants them enables them to 
undertake difficult projects. Joan of Arc's adventure is something of a 
miracle: and it is, moreover, a very brief adventure. But Saint 
Catherine of Siena's story is meaningful; she creates a great reputation 
in Sienna for charitable activity and for the visions that testify to her 
intense inner life within a very normal existence; she thus acquires the 
necessary authority for success generally lacking in women; her 
influence is invoked to hearten those condemned to death, to bring 
back to the fold those who are lost, to appease quarrels between 
families and towns. She is supported by the community that 
recognizes itself in her, which is how she is able to fulfill her 
pacifying mission, preaching submission to the pope from city to city, 
carrying on a vast correspondence with bishops and sovereigns, and 
finally chosen by Florence as ambassador to go and find the pope in 
Avignon. Queens, by divine right, and saints, by their shining virtues, 
are assured of support in the society that allows them to be men's 
equal. Of others, a silent modesty is required. The success of a 
Christine de Pizan is due to exceptional luck: even so, she had to be 
widowed and burdened with children for her to decide to earn her 
living by her pen. 

Altogether, men's opinion in the Middle Ages is not favorable to 
women. Courtly poets did exalt love; many codes of courtly love 
appear, such as Andre le Chapelain's poem and the famous Roman de 
la Rose, in which Guillaume de Lorris encourages young men to 
devote themselves to the service of ladies. But against this 
troubadour-inspired literature are pitted bourgeois-inspired writings 
that cruelly attack women: fabliaux, farces, and plays criticize women 
for their laziness, coquetry, and lust. Their worst enemies are the 
clergy. They incriminate marriage. The Church made it a sacrament 
and yet prohibited it for the Christian elite: this is the source of the 
contradiction of the querelle des femmes * It is denounced with 
singular vigor in The Lamentations ofMatheolus, famous in its time, 


published fifteen years after the first part of the Roman de la Rose, 
and translated into French one hundred years later. Matthew lost his 
"clergy" by taking a wife; he cursed his marriage, cursed women and 
marriage in general. Why did God create woman if there is this 
incompatibility between marriage and clergy? Peace cannot exist in 
marriage: it had to be the devil's work; or else God did not know 
what he was doing. Matthew hopes that woman will not rise on 
Judgment Day. But God responds to him that marriage is a purgatory 
thanks to which heaven is reached; and carried to the heavens in a 
dream, Matthew sees a legion of husbands welcoming him to the 
shouts of "Here, here the true martyr!" Jean de Meung, another cleric, 
is similarly inspired; he enjoins young men to get out from under the 
yoke of women; first he attacks love: 

Love is hateful country 
Love is amorous hate. 

He attacks marriage that reduces man to slavery, that dooms him to be 
cuckolded; and he directs a violent diatribe against woman. In return, 
woman's champions strive to demonstrate her superiority. Here are 
some of the arguments apologists for the weaker sex drew on until the 
seventeenth century: 

Mulier perfetur viro scilicet. Materia: quia Adam factus esst de 
limo terrae, Eva de costa Adae. Loco: quia Adam factus est extra 
para-disum, Eva in paradiso. In conceptione: quia mulier 
concepit Deum, quid homo non potuit. Apparicione: quia 
Christus apparuit mulieri post mortem resurrectionem, scilicet 
Magdalene. Exaltatione: quia mulier exaltata est super chorus 
angelorum, scilicet beata Maria. 3 

To which their opponents replied that if Christ first appeared to 
women, it is because he knew they were talkative, and he was in a 
hurry to make his resurrection known. 

The quarrel continues throughout the fifteenth century. The author 
of The Fifteen Joys of Marriage indulgently describes the misfortunes 
of poor husbands. Eustache Deschamps writes an interminable poem 
on the same theme. It is here that the "quarrel of the Roman de la 


Rose" begins. This is the first time a woman takes up her pen to 
defend her sex: Christine de Pizan attacks the clerics energetically in 
The Epistle to the God of Love. The clerics rise up immediately to 
defend Jean de Meung; but Gerson, chancellor of the University of 
Paris, takes Christine's side; he writes his treatise in French to reach a 
wide public. Martin Le Franc throws the indigestible Ladies ' 
Chaperon — still being read two hundred years later — onto the 
battlefield.* And Christine intervenes once again. Her main demand is 
for women's right to education: "If the custom were to put little girls 
in school and they were normally taught sciences like the boys, they 
would learn as perfectly and would understand the subtleties of all the 
arts and sciences as they do." 

In truth this dispute concerns women only indirectly. No one 
dreams of demanding a social role for them other than what they are 
assigned. It is more a question of comparing the life of the cleric to the 
state of marriage; it is a masculine problem brought up by the 
Church's ambiguous attitude to marriage. Luther settles this conflict 
by rejecting the celibacy of priests. Woman's condition is not 
influenced by this literary war. While railing against society as it is, 
the satire of farces and fabliaux does not claim to change it: it mocks 
women but does not plot against them. Courtly poetry glorifies 
femininity: but such a cult does not in any way imply the assimilation 
of the sexes. The querelle is a secondary phenomenon in which 
society's attitude is reflected but which does not modify it. 

It has already been said that the wife's legal status remained 
practically unchanged from the early fifteenth century to the nineteenth 
century; but in the privileged classes her concrete condition does 
change. The Italian Renaissance is a period of individualism 
propitious to the burgeoning of strong personalities, regardless of sex. 
There were some women at that time who were powerful sovereigns, 
like Jean of Aragon, Joan of Naples, and Isabella d'Este; others were 
adventurer condottieri who took up arms like men: thus Girolamo 
Riario's wife fought for Forli's freedom; Hippolyta Fioramenti 
commanded the Duke of Milan's troops and during the siege of Pavia 
led a company of noblewomen to the ramparts. To defend their city 
against Montluc, Sienese women marshaled three thousand female 


troops commanded by women. Other Italian women became famous 
thanks to their culture or talents: for example, Isotta Nogarola, 
Veronica Gambara, Gaspara Stampa, Vittoria Colonna, who was 
Michelangelo's friend, and especially Lucrezia Tornabuoni, mother of 
Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici, who wrote, among other things, 
hymns and a life of Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin. A majority 
of these distinguished women were courtesans; joining free moral 
behavior with freethinking, ensuring their economic autonomy 
through their profession, many were treated by men with deferential 
admiration; they protected the arts and were interested in literature and 
philosophy, and they themselves often wrote or painted: Isabella da 
Luna, Caterina di San Celso, and Imperia, who was a poet and 
musician, took up the tradition of Aspasia and Phryne. For many of 
them, though, freedom still takes the form of license: the orgies and 
crimes of these great Italian ladies and courtesans remain legendary. 

This license is also the main freedom found in the following 
centuries for women whose rank or fortune liberates them from 
common morality; in general, it remains as strict as in the Middle 
Ages. As for positive accomplishments, they are possible only for a 
very few. Queens are always privileged: Catherine de Medici, 
Elizabeth of England, and Isabella the Catholic are great sovereigns. A 
few great saintly figures are also worshipped. The astonishing destiny 
of Saint Teresa of Avila is explained approximately in the same way 
as Saint Catherine's: her self-confidence is inspired by her confidence 
in God; by carrying the virtues connected with her status to the 
highest, she garners the support of her confessors and the Christian 
world: she is able to emerge beyond a nun's ordinary condition; she 
founds and runs monasteries, she travels, takes initiatives, and 
perseveres with a man's adventurous courage; society does not thwart 
her; even writing is not effrontery: her confessors order her to do it. 
She brilliantly shows that a woman can raise herself as high as a man 
when, by an astonishing chance, a man's possibilities are granted to 

But in reality such possibilities are very unequal; in the sixteenth 
century, women are still poorly educated. Anne of Brittany summons 
many women to the court, where previously only men had been seen; 
she strives to form a retinue of girls of honor: but she is more 
interested in their upbringing than in their culture. Among women 


who a little later distinguish themselves by their minds, intellectual 
influence, and writings, most are noblewomen: the duchess of Retz, 
Mme de Lignerolles, the Duchess of Rohan and her daughter Anne; 
the most famous were princesses: Queen Margot and Margaret of 
Navarre. Pernette Du Guillet seems to have been a bourgeois; but 
Louise Labe is undoubtedly a courtesan: in any case, she felt free to 
behave unconventionally. 

Women in the seventeenth century will continue to distinguish 
themselves essentially in intellectual spheres; social life and culture are 
spreading; women play a considerable role in salons; by the very fact 
they are not involved in the construction of the world, they have the 
leisure to indulge in conversation, the arts, and literature; they are not 
formally educated, but through discussions, readings, and instruction 
by private preceptors or public lectures they succeed in acquiring 
greater knowledge than their husbands: Mile de Gournay, Mme de 
Rambouillet, Mile de Scudery, Mme de La Fayette, and Mme de 
Sevigne enjoy great reputations in France; and outside France similar 
renown is associated with the names of Princess Elisabeth, Queen 
Christine, and Mile de Schurman, who corresponded with the whole 
scholarly world. Thanks to this culture and the ensuing prestige, 
women manage to encroach on the masculine universe; from literature 
and amorous casuistry many ambitious women slide toward political 
intrigue. In 1623 the papal nuncio wrote: "In France all the major 
events, all the important plots, most often depend on women." The 
princesse de Conde foments the "women's conspiracy"; Anne of 
Austria readily takes the advice of the women surrounding her; 
Richelieu lends an indulgent ear to the duchesse d'Aiguillon; the roles 
played by Mme de Montbazon, the duchesse de Chevreuse, Mile de 
Montpensier, the duchess de Longueville, Anne de Gonzague, and 
many others in the Fronde are well-known. Lastly, Mme de 
Maintenon is a brilliant example of the influence a skillful woman 
adviser could wield on state affairs. Organizers, advisers, and 
schemers, women assure themselves of a highly effective role by 
oblique means: the princesse des Ursins in Spain governs with more 
authority but her career is brief. Alongside these great noblewomen, a 
few personalities assert themselves in a world that escapes bourgeois 
constraints; a hitherto unknown species appears: the actress. The 
presence of a woman onstage is noted for the first time in 1545; in 


1592 there is still only one; at the beginning of the seventeenth 
century most of them are actors' wives; they then become more and 
more independent both onstage and in their private lives. As far as the 
courtesan is concerned, after being Phryne or Imperia, she finds her 
highest incarnation in Ninon de Lenclos: from capitalizing on her 
femininity, she surpasses it; from living among men, she takes on 
virile qualities; her independent moral behavior disposes her to 
independent thinking: Ninon de Lenclos brought freedom to the 
highest point a woman could at that time. 

In the eighteenth century, woman's freedom and independence 
continue to grow. Customs remained strict in principle: girls receive 
no more than a cursory education; they are married off or sent to a 
convent without being consulted. The bourgeoisie, the rising class that 
is being consolidated, imposes a strict morality on the wife. But on the 
other hand, with the nobility breaking up, the greatest freedom of 
behavior is possible for women of the world, and even the haute 
bourgeoisie is contaminated by these examples; neither convent nor 
conjugal home can contain the woman. Once again, for the majority of 
women, this freedom remains negative and abstract: they limit 
themselves to the pursuit of pleasure. But those who are intelligent 
and ambitious create avenues for action for themselves. Salon life 
once again blossoms: The roles played by Mme Geoffrin, Mme du 
Deffand, Mile de Lespinasse, Mme d'Epinay, and Mme de Tencin are 
well-known; protectors and inspiration, women make up the writer's 
favorite audience; they are personally interested in literature, 
philosophy, and sciences: like Mme Du Chatelet, for example, they 
have their own physics workshops or chemistry laboratory; they 
experiment; they dissect; they intervene more actively than ever before 
in political life: one after the other, Mme de Prie, Mme de Mailly, 
Mme de Chateauneuf, Mme de Pompadour, and Mme du Barry 
govern Louis XV; there is barely a minister without his Egeria, to 
such a point that Montesquieu thinks that in France everything is done 
by women; they constitute, he says, "a new state within the state"; and 
Colle writes on the eve of 1789: "They have so taken over 
Frenchmen, they have subjugated them so greatly that they think 
about and feel only for themselves." Alongside society women there 
are also actresses and prostitutes who enjoy great fame: Sophie 
Arnould, Julie Talma, and Adrienne Lecouvreur. 


Throughout the ancien regime the cultural domain is the most 
accessible to women who try to assert themselves. Yet none reached 
the summits of a Dante or a Shakespeare; this can be explained by the 
general mediocrity of their condition. Culture has never been the 
privilege of any but the feminine elite, never of the masses; and 
masculine geniuses often come from the masses; even privileged 
women encountered obstacles that barred their access to the heights. 
Nothing stopped the ascent of a Saint Teresa, a Catherine of Russia, 
but a thousand circumstances conspired against the woman writer. In 
her small book^4 Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf enjoyed 
inventing the destiny of Shakespeare's supposed sister; while he 
learned a little Latin, grammar, and logic in school, she was closed up 
at home in total ignorance; while he poached, ran around in the 
countryside, and slept with local women, she was mending kitchen 
towels under her parents' watchful eyes; if, like him, she bravely left 
to seek her fortune in London, she could not become an actress 
earning her living freely: either she would be brought back to her 
family and married off by force; or seduced, abandoned, and 
dishonored, she would commit suicide out of despair. She could also 
be imagined as a happy prostitute, a Moll Flanders, as Daniel Defoe 
portrayed her: but she would never have run a theater and written 
plays. In England, Virginia Woolf notes, women writers always 
engender hostility. Dr. Johnson compared them to "a dog's walking 
on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it 
done at all." Artists care about what people think more than anyone 
else; women narrowly depend on it: it is easy to imagine how much 
strength it takes for a woman artist simply to dare to carry on 
regardless; she often succumbs in the fight. At the end of the 
seventeenth century, Lady Winchilsea, a childless noblewoman, 
attempts the feat of writing; some passages of her work show she had 
a sensitive and poetic nature; but she was consumed by hatred, anger, 
and fear: 

Alas! a woman that attempts the pen, 
Such an intruder on the rights of men, 
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed, 
The fault by no virtue can be redeemed* 


Almost all her work is filled with indignation about woman's 
condition. The Duchess of Newcastle's case is similar; also a 
noblewoman, she creates a scandal by writing. "Women live like 
cockroaches or owls, they die like worms," she furiously writes. 
Insulted and ridiculed, she had to shut herself up in her domain; and 
in spite of a generous temperament and going half-mad, she produced 
nothing more than wild imaginings. It is not until the eighteenth 
century that a bourgeois widow, Mrs. Aphra Behn, * lived by her pen 
like a man; others followed her example, but even in the nineteenth 
century they were often obliged to hide; they did not even have a 
"room of their own"; that is, they did not enjoy material independence, 
one of the essential conditions for inner freedom. 

As has already been seen, because of the development of social life 
and its close link to intellectual life, French women's situation is a 
little more favorable. Nevertheless, people are largely hostile to the 
bluestockings. During the Renaissance, noblewomen and intellectuals 
inspire a movement in favor of their sex; Platonic doctrines imported 
from Italy spiritualize love and woman. Many well-read men strive to 
defend her. La nef des dames vertueuses (The Ship of Virtuous 
Ladies), Le chevalier des dames (The Ladies' Chevalier), and so on 
were published. Erasmus mLe petit senat (The Little Senate) gives 
the floor to Cornelia, who unabashedly details the grievances of her 
sex. "Men are tyrants . . . They treat us like toys . . . they make us their 
launderers and cooks." Erasmus demands that women be allowed to 
have an education. Cornelius Agrippa, in a very famous work, 
Declamation de la noblesse et de I'excellence du sexe feminin 
(Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex), 
devotes himself to showing feminine superiority. He takes up the old 
cabbalistic arguments: Eve means Life and Adam Earth. Created after 
man, woman is more finished then he. She is born in paradise, he 
outside. When she falls into the water, she floats; man sinks. She is 
made from Adam's rib and not from earth. Her monthly cycles cure 
all illnesses. Eve merely wandered in her ignorance, whereas Adam 
sinned, which is why God made himself a man; moreover, after his 
resurrection he appeared to women. Then Agrippa declares that 
women are more virtuous than men. He lists "virtuous women" that 
the sex can take pride in, which is also a commonplace of these 
praises. Lastly, he mounts an indictment of male tyranny: "Acting 


against divine right and violating natural law with impunity, the 
tyranny of men has deprived women of the freedom they receive at 
birth." Yet she engenders children; she is as intelligent and even 
subtler than man; it is scandalous that her activities are limited, 
"undoubtedly done not by God's order, nor by necessity or reason, 
but by the force of usage, by education, work and principally by 
violence and oppression." He does not, of course, demand sexual 
equality, but wants woman to be treated with respect. The work was 
immensely successful; there is alsoLe fort inexpugnable (The 
Impregnable Fort), another praise of woman; and La parfaite amye 
(The Perfect Friend) by Heroet, imbued with Platonic mysticism. In a 
curious book introducing Saint-Simonian doctrine, Postel announces 
the coming of a new Eve, the regenerating mother of humankind: he 
thinks he has even met her; she is dead, and she is perhaps 
reincarnated in him. With more moderation, Marguerite de Valois, in 
her Docte et subtil discours (Learned and Subtle Discourse) 
proclaims that there is something divine in woman. But the writer 
who best served the cause of her sex was Margaret of Navarre, who 
proposed an ideal of sentimental mysticism and chastity without 
prudery to counter licentiousness, attempting to reconcile marriage 
and love for women's honor with happiness. Women's opponents do 
not, of course, give up. Among others, Les controverses des sexes 
masculine et feminin (Controversies over the Masculine and Feminine 
Sexes), in response to Agrippa, puts forward the old medieval 
arguments. Rabelais has a good time in The Third Book satirizing 
marriage in the tradition of Matthew and Deschamps: however, it is 
women who lay down the law in the privileged abbey of Theleme. 
Antifeminism becomes virulent once again in 1617, with the Alphabet 
de V imperfection et malice des femmes (A Discourse of Women, 
Shewing Their Imperfections Alphabetically), by Jacques Olivier; the 
cover pictures an engraving of a woman with a harpy's hands, 
covered with the feathers of lust and perched on her feet, because, like 
a hen, she is a bad housewife: under every letter of the alphabet is one 
of her defects. Once more it was a man of the Church who rekindled 
the old quarrel; Mile de Gournay answered back with Egalite des 
hommes et des femmes (Equality of Men and Women). This is 
followed by a quantity of libertine literature, including Parnasse et 
cabinets satyriques (Parnassus and Satyrical Cabinets),* that attacks 


women's moral behavior, while the holier-than-thous quoting Paul, 
the Church Fathers, and Ecclesiastes drag them down. Woman 
provided an inexhaustible theme for the satires of Mathurin Regnier 
and his friends. In the other camp, the apologists outdo themselves in 
taking up and commenting on Agrippa's arguments. Father du Boscq 
in L'honneste femme (The Compleat Woman) calls for women to be 
allowed to be educated. The Astree and a great quantity of courtly 
literature praise their merits in rondeaux, sonnets, elegies, and such. 

Even the successes women achieved were cause for new attacks; 
Les precieuses ridicules {The Pretentious Young Ladies ) set public 
opinion against them; and a bit later Les femmes savants {The 
Learned Ladies) are applauded. Moliere is not, however, woman's 
enemy: he vigorously attacks arranged marriages, he demands 
freedom for young girls in their love lives and respect and 
independence for the wife. On the other hand, Bossuet does not spare 
them in his sermons. The first woman, he preaches, is "only a part of 
Adam and a kind of diminutive. Her mind is about the same size." 
Boileau's satire against women is not much more than an exercise in 
rhetoric, but it raises an outcry: Pradon, Regnard, and Perrault 
counterattack violently. La Bruyere and Saint-Evremond take the part 
of women. The period's most determined feminist is Poulain de la 
Barre who in 1673 publishes a Cartesian- inspired work, De I'egalite 
des deux sexes (The Equality of the Two Sexes). He thinks that since 
men are stronger, they favor their sex and women accept this 
dependence out of custom. They never had their chances: in either 
freedom or education. Thus they cannot be judged by what they did in 
the past. Nothing indicates their inferiority to men. Anatomy reveals 
differences, but none of them constitutes a privilege for the male. And 
Poulain de la Barre concludes with a demand for a solid education for 
women. Fontenelle writes Entretiens sur la pluralite des mondes 
(Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds) for women. And while 
Fenelon, following Mme de Maintenon and Abbot Fleury, puts 
forward a very limited educational program, the Jansenist academic 
Rollin wants women to undertake serious studies. 

The eighteenth century is also divided. In 1744, the author of the 
Controverse sur I'dme de la femme (Controversy over Woman's 
Soul) declares that "woman created uniquely for man will cease to be 
at the end of the world because she will cease to be useful for the 


object for which she had been created, from which follows 
necessarily that her soul is not immortal." In a slightly less radical 
way, Rousseau is the spokesman of the bourgeoisie and dooms 
woman to her husband and motherhood. "All the education of women 
should be relative to men . . . Woman is made to yield to man and to 
bear his injustices," he asserts. However, the democratic and 
individualist ideal of the eighteenth century is favorable to women; for 
most philosophers they are human beings equal to those of the strong 
sex. Voltaire denounces the injustice of their lot. Diderot considers 
their inferiority largely made by society. "Women, I pity thee!" he 
writes. He thinks that "in all customs the cruelty of civil laws makes 
common cause with the cruelty of nature against women. They have 
been treated as idiot beings." Montesquieu, paradoxically, believes 
that women should be subordinate to man in the home but that 
everything predisposes them to political action. "It is against reason 
and against nature for women to be mistresses in the house . . . but not 
for them to govern an empire." Helvetius shows that woman's 
inferiority is created by the absurdity of her education; d'Alembert is 
of the same opinion. Economic feminism timidly makes its appearance 
through a woman, Mme de Ciray. * But it is Mercier almost alone in 
his Tableau de Paris who rises up against the destitution of women 
workers and tackles the fundamental question of women's work. 
Condorcet wants women to enter political life. He considers them 
man's equals and defends them against classic attacks: "Women are 
said . . . not to have their own feeling of justice, that they listen to their 
feelings more than to their conscience... [But] it is not nature, it is 
education, it is the social existence that causes this difference." And 
elsewhere: "The more women have been enslaved by laws, the more 
dangerous their empire has been ... It would lessen if women had less 
interest in keeping it, if it ceased being for them the sole means of 
defending themselves and escaping oppression." 

* Mundium: almost total legal guardianship over women by father and husband. — 

* The Songe du verger is a treatise of political doctrine, written first in Latin (1370) 
and then in French (1378). Title usually kept in French. — TRANS. 

* Lettre de cachet: letter with a seal. It carries an official seal, usually signed by the 


king of France, authorizing the imprisonment without trial of a named person. — 

f'The wife is not exactly a partner, but it is hoped she will become one." — TRANS. 

1 . "Those coming to Sisteron by the Peipin passage, like the Jews, owed a toll of five 
sols to the ladies of Sainte-Claire" (Bahutaud). 

2. De Reiffenberg, Dictionnaire de la conversation , "Femmes et filles de folles vie" 
(Dictionary of Conversation, "Women and Girls of the Low Life"). [Translation of Old 
French by Gabrielle Spiegel. — TRANS.] 

* Querelle des femmes: a literary quarrel traced to Christine de Pizan's objection to the 
portrayal of women in theRoman de la Rose, voiced in herEpitre ait dieu d'amours 
(1399; Epistle to the God of Love), a debate that helped nurture literary production 
throughout the early modern period. — TRANS. 

3. "Woman is superior to man, namely: Materially: because Adam was made of clay, 
Eve from one of Adam's ribs./f? terms of place: because Adam was created outside of 
paradise, Eve in paradise. In terms of conception: because woman conceived God, 
something man couldn't Ao.In terms of appearance: because Christ after his death 
appeared to a woman, namely Magdalene. In terms of glorification: because a woman 
was glorified above the choir of angels, namely blessed Mary." 

* The correct title is Le champion des dames (c. 1441; The Ladies' Champion). — 

* Beauvoir shortened and paraphrased this quatrain in the French text. — TRANS. 

f Discrepancy: In fact, Mrs. Aphra Behn, dramatist and novelist, lived from 1640 to 
1689.— TRANS. 

* This title might be a confusion and combination ofLe cabinet satyrique (1618) and 
Le parnasse des poetes satyriques (1 622). — TRANS. 

* The name Ciray is untraceable. Emilie Du Chatelet and \bltaire lived and worked in 
the Chateau de Cirey from 1734 to 1749, giving rise to some speculation about the 
possibility of a misspelling or an erroneous transcription from the original 
manuscript of the name Ciray. But there is no conclusive evidence of this. — TRANS. 



The Revolution might have been expected to change the fate of 
woman. It did nothing of the kind. This bourgeois revolution 
respected bourgeois institutions and values; and it was waged almost 
exclusively by men. It must be pointed out that during the entire 
ancien regime working-class women as a sex enjoyed the most 
independence. A woman had the right to run a business, and she 
possessed all the necessary capacities to exercise her trade 
autonomously. She shared in production as linen maid, laundress, 
burnisher, shopgirl, and so on; she worked either at home or in small 
businesses; her material independence allowed her great freedom of 
behavior: a woman of modest means could go out, go to taverns, and 
control her own body almost like a man; she is her husband's partner 
and his equal. She is oppressed on an economic and not on a sexual 
level. In the countryside, the peasant woman plays a considerable role 
in rural labor; she is treated like a servant; often she does not eat at the 
same table as her husband and sons; she toils harder and the burdens 
of maternity add to her fatigue. But as in old farming societies, since 
she is necessary to man, he respects her for it; their goods, interests, 
and concerns are shared; she enjoys great authority in the home. From 
within their difficult lives, these women could have asserted 
themselves as individuals and demanded their rights; but a tradition of 
timidity and submission weighed on them: the Estates-General cahiers 
record an insignificant number of feminine claims, limited to "Men 
should not engage in trades that are the prerogative of women." And it 
is true that women are found alongside their men in demonstrations 
and riots: they are the ones who go to Versailles to find "the baker, 
the baker's wife, and the baker's little boy." * But it is not the people 
who led the Revolution and reaped its fruits. As for bourgeois 
women, a few rallied ardently to the cause of freedom: Mme Roland, 
Lucile Desmoulins, and Theroigne de Mericourt; one of them, 
Charlotte Corday, significantly influenced the outcome when she 
assassinated Marat. There were a few feminist movements. In 1791, 


Olympe de Gouges proposed a "Declaration of the Rights of Woman 
and the Female Citizen" equivalent to the "Declaration of the Rights of 
Man," demanding that all masculine privileges be abolished. In 1790 
the same ideas are found in Motion de la pauvre Javotte (Poor 
Javotte's Motion) and in other similar lampoons; but in spite of 
Condorcet's support, these efforts are abortive, and Olympe perishes 
on the scaffold. In addition to L 'Impatient, the newspaper she 
founded, a few other short-lived papers appear. Women's clubs 
merge for the most part with men's and are taken over by them. On 
Brumaire 28, 1793, when the actress Rose Lacombe, president of the 
Society of Republican and Revolutionary Women, along with a 
delegation of women, forces the doors of the Conseil General, the 
prosecutor Chaumette pronounces words in the assembly that could 
be inspired by Saint Paul and Saint Thomas: "Since when are women 
allowed to renounce their sex and become men?... [Nature] has told 
woman: Be a woman. Child care, household tasks, sundry 
motherhood cares, those are your tasks." Women are banned from 
entering the Conseil and soon even from the clubs where they had 
learned their politics. In 1790, the right of the firstborn and masculine 
privilege were eliminated; girls and boys became equals regarding 
succession; in 1792 divorce law was established, relaxing strict 
marital ties; but these were feeble conquests. Bourgeois women were 
too integrated into the family to find concrete grounds for solidarity 
with each other; they did not constitute a separate caste capable of 
forcing their demands: on an economic level, they existed as parasites. 
Thus, while women could have participated in events in spite of their 
sex, they were prevented by their class, and those from the agitating 
class were condemned to stand aside because they were women. 
When economic power falls into the hands of the workers, it will then 
be possible for the working woman to gain the capacities that the 
parasitic woman, noble or bourgeois, never obtained. 

During the liquidation of the Revolution woman enjoys an anarchic 
freedom. But when society is reorganized, she is rigidly enslaved 
again. From the feminist point of view, France was ahead of other 
countries; but for the unfortunate modern French woman, her status 
was determined during a military dictatorship; the Napoleonic Code, 
which sealed her fate for a century, greatly held back her 
emancipation. Like all military leaders, Napoleon wants to see woman 


solely as a mother; but, heir to a bourgeois revolution, he does not 
intend to demolish the social structure by giving the mother priority 
over the wife: he prohibits the querying of paternity; he sets down 
harsh conditions for the unwed mother and the illegitimate child. Yet 
the married woman herself does not find recourse in her dignity as 
mother; the feudal paradox is perpetuated. Girls and wives are 
deprived of citizens' rights, prohibiting them from functions such as 
the practice of law or wardship. But the unmarried woman enjoys her 
civil role fully while marriage preserves the mundium. Woman owes 
obedience to her husband; he can have her confined in cases of 
adultery and obtain a divorce from her; if he kills the guilty wife when 
caught in the act, he is excusable in the eyes of the law; the husband, 
on the other hand, receives an infraction only if he brings a concubine 
into the home, and this is the only ground that would allow his wife to 
divorce him. Man decides where they will live, and he has many more 
rights over the children than the mother; and — except in cases where 
the woman manages a business — his authorization is necessary for 
her contracts. Marital power is rigorously exercised, both over the 
wife herself as a person and over her possessions. 

Throughout the nineteenth century, the legal system continues to 
reinforce the code's severity, depriving, among other things, the 
woman of all rights of alienation. In 1826 the Restoration abolishes 
divorce,* and the 1848 Constitutional Assembly refuses to reestablish 
it; it does not reappear until 1884, and then it is still difficult to obtain. 
The bourgeoisie was never more powerful, yet they recognize the 
dangers implicit in the Industrial Revolution; they assert themselves 
with nervous authority. The freedom of ideas inherited from the 
eighteenth century never makes inroads into family moral principles; 
these remain as they are defined by the early-nineteenth-century 
reactionary thinkers Joseph de Maistre and Bonald. They base the 
value of order on divine will and demand a strictly hierarchical 
society; the family, the indissoluble social cell, will be the microcosm 
of society. "Man is to woman what woman is to the child"; or "power 
is to the minister what the minister is to the people," says Bonald. 
Thus the husband governs, the wife administers, and the children 
obey. Divorce is, of course, forbidden; and woman is confined to the 
home. "Women belong to the family and not to politics, and nature 
made them for housework and not for public service," adds Bonald. 


These hierarchies were respected in the family as described by Le 
Play in the middle of the century. 

In a slightly different way, Auguste Comte also demands a 
hierarchy of the sexes; between men and women there are "radical 
differences, both physical and moral, profoundly separating one from 
the other, in every species of animal and especially in the human 
racer Femininity is a kind of "prolonged childhood" that sets women 
apart from the "ideal type of the race." This biological infantilism 
expresses an intellectual weakness; the role of this purely affective 
being is that of spouse and housewife, no match for man: "Neither 
instruction nor education is suitable for her." As with Bonald, woman 
is confined to the family, and within this micro society the father 
governs because woman is "inept in all government even domestic"; 
she only administers and advises. Her instruction has to be limited. 
"Women and the proletariat cannot and must not become originators, 
nor do they wish to." And Comte foresees society's evolution as 
totally eliminating woman's work outside the family. In the second 
part of his work, Comte, swayed by his love for Clotilde de Vaux, 
exalts woman to the point of almost making her a divinity, the 
emanation of the Great Being; in the temple of Humanity, positivist 
religion will propose her for the adoration of the people, but only for 
her morality; man acts, while she loves: she is more deeply altruistic 
than he. But according to the positivist system, she is still no less 
confined to the family; divorce is still forbidden for her, and it would 
even be preferable for her widowhood to last forever; she has no 
economic or political rights; she is only a wife and an educator. 

Balzac expresses the same ideal in more cynical ways: woman's 
destiny, and her only glory, is to make the hearts of men beat, he 
writes in La physiologie du mariage (The Physiology of Marriage). 
"Woman is a possession acquired by contract; she is personal 
property, and the possession of her is as good as a security — indeed, 
properly speaking, woman is only man's annexe." Here he is 
speaking for the bourgeoisie, which intensified its antifeminism in 
reaction to eighteenth-century license and threatening progressive 
ideas. Having brilliantly presented the idea at the beginning of The 
Physiology of Marriage that this loveless institution forcibly leads the 
wife to adultery, Balzac exhorts husbands to rein in wives to total 
subjugation if they want to avoid the ridicule of dishonor. They must 


be denied training and culture, forbidden to develop their 
individuality, forced to wear uncomfortable clothing, and encouraged 
to follow a debilitating dietary regime. The bourgeoisie follows this 
program exactly, confining women to the kitchen and to housework, 
jealously watching their behavior; they are enclosed in daily life rituals 
that hindered all attempts at independence. In return, they are honored 
and endowed with the most exquisite respect. "The married woman is 
a slave who must be seated on a throne," says Balzac; of course men 
must give in to women in all irrelevant circumstances, yielding them 
first place; women must not carry heavy burdens as in primitive 
societies; they are readily spared all painful tasks and worries: at the 
same time this relieves them of all responsibility. It is hoped that, thus 
duped, seduced by the ease of their condition, they will accept the role 
of mother and housewife to which they are being confined. And in 
fact, most bourgeois women capitulate. As their education and their 
parasitic situation make them dependent on men, they never dare to 
voice their claims: those who do are hardly heard. It is easier to put 
people in chains than to remove them if the chains bring prestige, said 
George Bernard Shaw. The bourgeois woman clings to the chains 
because she clings to her class privileges. It is drilled into her and she 
believes that women's liberation would weaken bourgeois society; 
liberated from the male, she would be condemned to work; while she 
might regret having her rights to private property subordinated to her 
husband's, she would deplore even more having this property 
abolished; she feels no solidarity with working-class women: she 
feels closer to her husband than to a woman textile worker. She 
makes his interests her own. 

Yet these obstinate examples of resistance cannot stop the march of 
history; the advent of the machine ruins landed property and brings 
about working-class emancipation and concomitantly that of woman. 
All forms of socialism, wresting woman from the family, favor her 
liberation: Plato, aspiring to a communal regime, promised women a 
similar autonomy to that enjoyed in Sparta. With the Utopian socialism 
of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Cabet is born the Utopia of the "free 
woman." The Saint- Simonian idea of universal association demands 
the abolition of all slavery: that of the worker and that of the woman; 
and it is because women like men are human beings that Saint-Simon, 
and Leroux, Pecqueur, and Carnot after him, demand their freedom. 


Unfortunately, this reasonable theory has no credibility in the Saint- 
Simonian school. Instead, woman is exalted in the name of femininity, 
the surest way to disserve her. Under the pretext of considering the 
couple as the basis of social unity, Pere Enfantin tries to introduce a 
woman into each "director-couple" called the priest-couple; he awaits 
a better world from a woman messiah, and the Compagnons de la 
Femme embark for the East in search of this female savior. He is 
influenced by Fourier, who confuses the liberation of woman with the 
restoration of the flesh; Fourier demands the right of all individuals to 
follow their passionate attractions; he wants to replace marriage with 
love; he considers the woman not as a person but only in her amorous 
functions. And Cabet promises that Icarian communism will bring 
about complete equality of the sexes, though he accords women a 
limited participation in politics. In fact, women hold second place in 
the Saint- Simonian movement: only Claire Bazard, founder and main 
support for a brief period of the magazine La Femme Nouvelle (The 
New Woman), plays a relatively important role. Many other minor 
publications appear later, but their claims are timid; they demand 
education rather than emancipation for women; Carnot, and later 
Legouve, is committed to raising the level of education for women. 
The idea of the woman partner or the woman as a regenerating force 
persists throughout the nineteenth century in Victor Hugo. But 
woman's cause is discredited by these doctrines that, instead of 
assimilating her, oppose her to man, emphasizing intuition and 
emotion instead of reason. The cause is also discredited by some of its 
partisans' mistakes. In 1848 women founded clubs and journals; 
Eugenie Niboyet published La Voix des Femmes (Women's Voice), a 
magazine that Cabet worked on. A female delegation went to the city 
hall to demand "women's rights" but obtained nothing. In 1849, 
Jeanne Deroin ran for deputy, and her campaign foundered in ridicule. 
Ridicule also killed the "Vesuvians" movement and the Bloomerists, 
who paraded in extravagant costumes. The most intelligent women of 
the period took no part in these movements: Mme de Stael fought for 
her own cause rather than her sisters'; George Sand demanded the 
right for free love but refused to collaborate on La Voix des Femmes; 
her claims are primarily sentimental. Flora Tristan believed in the 
people's redemption through woman; but she is more interested in the 
emancipation of the working class than that of her own sex. Daniel 


Stern and Mme de Girardin, however, joined the feminist movement. 

On the whole, the reform movement that develops in the nineteenth 
century seeks justice in equality, and is thus generally favorable to 
feminism. There is one notable exception: Proudhon. Undoubtedly 
because of his peasant roots, he reacts violently against Saint- 
Simonian mysticism; he supports small property owners and at the 
same time believes in confining woman to the home. "Housewife or 
courtesan" is the dilemma he locks her in. Until then, attacks against 
women had been led by conservatives, bitterly combating socialism as 
well: Le Charivari was one of the inexhaustible sources of jokes; it is 
Proudhon who breaks the alliance between feminism and socialism; 
he protests against the socialist women's banquet presided over by 
Leroux, and he fulminates against Jeanne Deroin. In his work Justice, 
he posits that woman should be dependent on man; man alone counts 
as a social individual; a couple is not a partnership, which would 
suppose equality, but a union; woman is inferior to man first because 
her physical force is only two-thirds that of the male, then because she 
is intellectually and morally inferior to the same degree: she is worth 2 
x 2 x 2 against 3 x 3 x 3 or 8 / 27 of the stronger sex. When two 
women, Mme Adam and Mme d'Hericourt, respond to him — one 
quite firmly, the other less effusively — Proudhon retorts with La 
pornocratie, ou Les femmes dans les temps modernes (Pornocracy, 
or Women in Modern Times). But, like all antifeminists, he addresses 
ardent litanies to the "real woman," slave and mirror to the male; in 
spite of this devotion, he has to recognize himself that the life he gave 
his own wife never made her happy: Mme Proudhon's letters are one 
long lament. 

But it is not these theoretical debates that influenced the course of 
events; they only timidly reflected them. Woman regains the economic 
importance lost since prehistoric times because she escapes the home 
and plays a new role in industrial production. The machine makes this 
upheaval possible because the difference in physical force between 
male and female workers is canceled out in a great number of cases. 
As this abrupt industrial expansion demands a bigger labor market 
than male workers can provide, women's collaboration is necessary. 
This is the great nineteenth-century revolution that transforms the lot 
of woman and opens a new era to her. Marx and Engels understand 
the full impact this will have on women, promising them a liberation 


brought about by that of the proletariat. In fact, "women and workers 
both have oppression in common," says Bebel. And both will escape 
oppression thanks to the importance their productive work will take 
on through technological development. Engels shows that woman's 
lot is closely linked to the history of private property; a catastrophe 
substituted patriarchy for matriarchy and enslaved woman to the 
patrimony; but the Industrial Revolution is the counterpart of that loss 
and will lead to feminine emancipation. He writes: "Woman cannot be 
emancipated unless she takes part in production on a large social scale 
and is only incidentally bound to domestic work. And this has 
become possible only within a large modern industry that not only 
accepts women's work on a grand scale but formally requires it." 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, woman was more 
shamefully exploited than workers of the opposite sex. Domestic 
labor constituted what the English termed the "sweating system"; in 
spite of constant work, the worker did not earn enough to make ends 
meet. Jules Simon, inL 'ouvriere (The Woman Worker), and even the 
conservative Leroy-Beaulieu, in Le travail des femmes au XIXe siecle 
(Women's Work in the Nineteenth Century), published in 1873, 
denounce loathsome abuses; the latter declares that more than 200,000 
French workers earn less than fifty centimes a day. It is clear why 
they hasten to migrate to the factories; in fact, it is not long before 
nothing is left outside workshops except needlework, laundering, and 
housework, all slave labor paying famine wages; even lace making, 
millinery, and such are taken over by the factories; in return, job 
offers are massive in the cotton, wool, and silk industries; women are 
mainly used in spinning and weaving mills. Employers often prefer 
them to men. "They do better work for less pay." This cynical formula 
clearly shows the drama of feminine labor. It is through labor that 
woman won her dignity as a human being; but it was a singularly 
difficult and slow conquest. Spinning and weaving are done under 
lamentable hygienic conditions. "In Lyon," writes Blanqui, "in the 
trimmings workshops, some women are obliged to work almost 
hanging in a kind of harness in order to use both their feet and 
hands." In 1831, silk workers work in the summer from as early as 
three o'clock in the morning to eleven at night, or seventeen hours a 
day,* "in often unhealthy workshops where sunlight never enters," 
says Norbert Truquin. "Half of the young girls develop consumption 


before the end of their apprenticeship. When they complain they are 
accused of dissimulating." 1 In addition, the male assistants take 
advantage of the young women workers. "To get what they wanted 
they used the most revolting means, hunger and want," says the 
anonymous author of La verite sur les evenements de Lyon (The 
Truth About the Events of Lyon). Some of the women work on farms 
as well as in factories. They are cynically exploited. Marx relates in a 
footnote of Das Kapital: "Mr. E., manufacturer, let me know that he 
employed only women on his mechanical weaving looms, and that he 
gave preference to married women, and among them, women who 
had a family to care for at home, because they were far more docile 
and attentive than unmarried women, and had to work until ready to 
drop from exhaustion to provide indispensable means of subsistence 
to support their families. This is how," adds Marx, "the qualities 
proper to woman are misrepresented to her disadvantage, and all the 
delicate and moral elements of her nature become means to enslave 
her and make her suffer." Summarizing Das Kapital and commenting 
on Bebel, G. Deville writes: "Beast of luxury or beast of burden, such 
is woman almost exclusively today. Kept by man when she does not 
work, she is still kept by him when she works herself to death." The 
situation of the woman worker was so lamentable that Sismondi and 
Blanqui called for women to be denied access to workshops. The 
reason is in part that women did not at first know how to defend 
themselves and organize unions. Feminine "associations" date from 
1848 and are originally production associations. The movement 
progressed extremely slowly, as the following figures show: 

in 1905, out of 781,392 union members, 69,405 are women; 
in 1908, out of 957,120 union members, 88,906 are women; 
in 1912, out of 1,1064,413 union members, 92,336 are women. 

In 1920, out of 1,580,967 workers, 239,016 are women and 
unionized female employees, and among 1,083,957 farmworkers, 
only 36,193 women are unionized; in all, 292,000 women are 
unionized out of a total of 3,076,585 union workers. A tradition of 
resignation and submission as well as a lack of solidarity and 
collective consciousness leaves them disarmed in front of the new 
possibilities available to them. 


The result of this attitude is that women's work was regulated 
slowly and late. Legislation does not intervene until 1874, and in spite 
of the campaigns waged under the empire, only two provisions affect 
women: one banning minors from night work, requiring a day off on 
Sundays and holidays, and limiting the workday to twelve hours; as 
for women over twenty-one, all that is done is to prohibit 
underground mine and quarry work. The first feminine work charter, 
dated November 2, 1892, bans night work and limits the workday in 
factories; it leaves the door open for all kinds of fraud. In 1900 the 
workday is limited to ten hours; in 1905 a weekly day of rest becomes 
obligatory; in 1907 the woman worker is granted free disposal of her 
income; in 1909 maternity leave is granted; in 1911 the 1892 
provisions are reinforced; in 1913 laws are passed for rest periods 
before and after childbirth, and dangerous and excessive work is 
prohibited. Little by little, social legislation takes shape, and health 
guarantees are set up for women's work; seats are required for 
salesgirls, long shifts at outdoor display counters are prohibited, and 
so on. The International Labor Office succeeded in getting 
international agreements on sanitary conditions for women's work, 
maternity leave, and such. 

A second consequence of the resigned inertia of women workers 
was the salaries they were forced to accept. Various explanations with 
multiple factors have been given for the phenomenon of low female 
salaries. It is insufficient to say that women have fewer needs than 
men: that is only a subsequent justification. Rather, women, as we 
have seen, did not know how to defend themselves against 
exploitation; they had to compete with prisons that dumped products 
without labor costs on the market; they competed with each other. 
Besides, in a society based on the marital community, woman seeks 
emancipation through work: bound to her father's or husband's 
household, she is most often satisfied just to bring home some extra 
money; she works outside the family, but for it; and since the working 
woman does not have to support herself completely, she ends up 
accepting remuneration far inferior to that of which a man demands. 
With a significant number of women accepting bargain wages, the 
whole female salary scale is, of course, set up to the advantage of the 

In France, according to an 1889-93 survey, for a day of work 


equal to a man's, a woman worker received only half the male's 
wages. A 1908 survey showed that the highest hourly rates for 
women working from home never rose above twenty centimes an 
hour and dropped as low as five centimes: it was impossible for a 
woman so exploited to live without charity or a protector. In America 
in 1918, women earned half men's salary. Around this period, for the 
same amount of coal mined in Germany, a woman earned 
approximately 25 percent less than a man. Between 1911 and 1943 
women's salaries in France rose a bit more rapidly than men's, but 
they nonetheless remained clearly inferior. 

While employers warmly welcomed women because of the low 
wages they accepted, this provoked resistance on the part of male 
workers. Between the cause of the proletariat and that of women there 
was no such direct solidarity as Bebel and Engels claimed. The 
problem was similar to that of the black labor force in the United 
States. The most oppressed minorities in a society are readily used by 
the oppressors as a weapon against the class they belong to; thus they 
at first become enemies, and a deeper consciousness of the situation is 
necessary so that blacks and whites, women and male workers, form 
coalitions rather than opposition. It is understandable that male 
workers at first viewed this cheap competition as an alarming threat 
and became hostile. It is only when women were integrated into 
unions that they could defend their own interests and cease 
endangering those of the working class as a whole. 

In spite of all these difficulties, progress in women's work 
continued. In 1900, in France, 900,000 women worked from home 
making clothes, leather goods, funeral wreaths, purses, beadwork, 
and Paris souvenirs, but this number diminished considerably. In 
1906, 42 percent of working-age women (between eighteen and sixty) 
worked in farming, industry, business, banks, insurance, offices, and 
liberal professions. This movement spread to the whole world 
because of the 1914-18 labor crisis and the world war. The lower 
middle class and the middle class were determined to follow this 
movement, and women also invaded the liberal professions. 
According to one of the last prewar censuses, in France 42 percent of 
all women between eighteen and sixty worked; in Finland, 37 percent; 
in Germany, 34.2 percent; in India, 27.7 percent; in England, 26.9 
percent; in the Netherlands, 19.2 percent; and in the United States, 


17.7 percent. But in France and in India, the high figures reflect the 
extent of rural labor. Excluding the peasantry, France had in 1940 
approximately 500,000 heads of establishments, 1 million female 
employees, 2 million women workers, and 1.5 million women 
working alone or unemployed. Among women workers, 650,000 
were domestic workers; 1.2 million worked in light industry, 
including 440,000 in textiles, 315,000 in clothing, and 380,000 at 
home in dressmaking. For commerce, liberal professions, and public 
service, France, England, and the United States ranked about the 

One of the basic problems for women, as has been seen, is 
reconciling the reproductive role and productive work. The 
fundamental reason that woman, since the beginning of history, has 
been consigned to domestic labor and prohibited from taking part in 
shaping the world is her enslavement to the generative function. In 
female animals there is a rhythm of heat and seasons that ensures the 
economy of their energies; nature, on the contrary, between puberty 
and menopause, places no limits on women's gestation. Some 
civilizations prohibit early marriage; Indian tribes are cited where 
women are guaranteed a two-year rest period between births; but in 
general over the centuries, women's fertility has not been regulated. 
Contraceptives have existed since antiquity, generally for women's 
use — potions, suppositories, or vaginal tampons — but they remained 
the secrets of prostitutes and doctors; maybe the secret was available 
to women of the Roman decadence whose sterility satirists 
reproached. 2 But the Middle Ages knew nothing of them; no trace is 
found until the eighteenth century. For many women in these times, 
life was an uninterrupted series of pregnancies; even women of easy 
virtue paid for their licentious love lives with frequent births. At 
certain periods, humanity felt the need to reduce the size of the 
population; but at the same time, nations worried about becoming 
weak; in periods of crisis and great poverty, postponing marriage 
lowered the birthrates. The general rule was to marry young and have 
as many children as the woman could carry, infant mortality alone 
reducing the number of living children. Already in the seventeenth 
century, the abbe de Pure protests against the "amorous dropsy" to 
which women are condemned; and Mme de Sevigne urges her 
daughter to avoid frequent pregnancies. 3 


But it is in the eighteenth century that the Malthusian movement 
develops in France. First the well-to-do class and then the population 
in general deem it reasonable to limit the number of children according 
to parents' resources, and anticonception procedures begin to enter 
into social practices. In 1778, Moreau, the demographer, writes, "Rich 
women are not the only ones who considered the propagation of the 
species the greatest old-fashioned dupe; these dark secrets, unknown 
to all animals except man, have already made their way into the 
countryside; nature is confounded even in the villages." The practice 
of coitus interruptus spreads first among the bourgeoisie, then among 
rural populations and workers; the prophylactic, which already existed 
as an antivenereal device, becomes a contraceptive device, widespread 
after the discovery of vulcanization, toward 1840. 4 

In Anglo-Saxon countries, birth control is official, and numerous 
methods have been discovered to dissociate these two formerly 
inseparable functions: the sexual and the reproductive. Viennese 
medical research, precisely establishing the mechanism of conception 
and the conditions favorable to it, has also suggested methods for 
avoiding it. In France contraception propaganda and the sale of 
pessaries, vaginal tampons, and such are prohibited; but birth control 
is no less widespread. 

As for abortion, it is nowhere officially authorized by law. Roman 
law granted no special protection to embryonic life; the nasciturus 
was not considered a human being, but part of the woman's body. 
"Partus antequam edatur mulieris portio estvelviscerum. " 5 

In the era of decadence, abortion seems to have been a normal 
practice, and even a legislator who wanted to encourage birthrates 
would never dare to prohibit it. If the woman refused a child against 
her husband's will, he could have her punished; but her crime was her 
disobedience. Generally, in Oriental and Greco-Roman civilization, 
abortion was allowed by law. 

It was Christianity that overturned moral ideas on this point by 
endowing the embryo with a soul; so abortion became a crime against 
the fetus itself. "Any woman who does what she can so as not to give 
birth to as many children as she is capable of is guilty of that many 
homicides, just as is a woman who tries to injure herself after 
conception," says Saint Augustine. In Byzantium, abortion led only to 
a temporary relegation; for the barbarians who practiced infanticide, it 


was punishable only if it was carried out by violence, against the 
mother's will: it was redeemed by paying blood money. But the first 
councils issued edicts for the severest penalties against this 
"homicide," whatever the presumed age of the fetus. Nonetheless, one 
question arises that has been the object of infinite discussion: At what 
moment does the soul enter the body? Saint Thomas and most other 
writers settled on life beginning toward the fortieth day for males and 
the eightieth for females; thus was established a distinction between 
the animated and the non-animated fetus. A Middle Ages penitential 
book declares: "If a pregnant woman destroys her fruit before forty- 
five days, she is subject to a penitence of one year. For sixty days, 
three years. And finally, if the infant is already animated, she should 
be tried for homicide." The book, however, adds: "There is a great 
difference between a poor woman who destroys her infant for the 
pain she has to feed it and the one who has no other reason but to hide 
a crime of fornication." In 1556, Henry II published a well-known 
edict on concealing pregnancy; since the death penalty was applied for 
simple concealment, it followed that the penalty should also apply to 
abortion maneuvers; in fact, the edict was aimed at infanticide, but it 
was used to authorize the death penalty for practitioners and 
accomplices of abortion. The distinction between the quickened and 
the non-quickened fetus disappeared around the eighteenth century. 
At the end of the century, Beccaria, a man of considerable influence in 
France, pleaded in favor of the woman who refuses to have a child. 
The 1791 code excuses the woman but punishes her accomplices with 
"twenty years of irons." The idea that abortion is homicide 
disappeared in the nineteenth century: it is considered rather to be a 
crime against the state. The law of 1810 prohibits it absolutely under 
pain of imprisonment and forced labor for the woman who aborts and 
her accomplices; but doctors practice abortion whenever it is a 
question of saving the mother's life. Because the law is so strict, 
juries at the end of the century stopped applying it, and few arrests 
were made, with four-fifths of the accused acquitted. In 1923 a new 
law is passed, again with forced labor for the accomplices and the 
practitioner of the operation, but punishing the woman having the 
abortion with only prison or a fine; in 1939 a new decree specifically 
targets the technicians: no reprieve would be granted. In 1941 
abortion was decreed a crime against state security. In other countries, 


it is a misdemeanor punishable by a short prison sentence; in England, 
it is a crime — a felony — punishable by prison or forced labor. 
Overall, codes and courts are more lenient with the woman having the 
abortion than with her accomplices. The Church, however, has never 
relaxed its severity. The March 27, 1917, code of canon law declares: 
"Those who procure abortions, the mother not excepted, incur 
excommunication latae sententiae, once the result has been obtained, 
reserved to the Ordinary." No reason can be invoked, even the danger 
of the mother's death. The pope again declared recently that between 
the mother's life and the child's the former must be sacrificed: the fact 
is, the mother, being baptized, can enter heaven — curiously, hell never 
enters into these calculations — while the fetus is condemned to 
perpetual limbo. 6 

Abortion was officially recognized, but only for a short time, in 
Germany before Nazism and in the Soviet Union before 1936. But in 
spite of religion and laws, it has been practiced in all countries to a 
large extent. In France, every year 800,000 to 1 million abortions are 
performed — as many as births — and two-thirds of the women are 
married, many already having one or two children. In spite of the 
prejudices, resistance, and an outdated morality, unregulated fertility 
has given way to fertility controlled by the state or individuals. 
Progress in obstetrics has considerably decreased the dangers of 
childbirth; childbirth pain is disappearing; at this time — March 1949 
— legislation has been passed in England requiring the use of certain 
anesthetic methods; they are already generally applied in the United 
States and are beginning to spread in France. With artificial 
insemination, the evolution that will permit humanity to master the 
reproductive function comes to completion. These changes have 
tremendous importance for woman in particular; she can reduce the 
number of pregnancies and rationally integrate them into her life, 
instead of being their slave. During the nineteenth century, woman in 
her turn is freed from nature; she wins control of her body. Relieved 
of a great number of reproductive servitudes, she can take on the 
economic roles open to her, roles that would ensure her control over 
her own person. 

The convergence of these two factors — participation in production 
and freedom from reproductive slavery — explains the evolution of 
woman's condition. As Engels predicted, her social and political 


status necessarily had to change. The feminist movement begun in 
France by Condorcet and in England by Mary Wollstonecraft in A 
Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and followed up at the beginning 
of the century by the Saint- Simonians, never succeeded for lack of a 
concrete base. But now women's claims would have ample weight. 
They would be heard even within the heart of the bourgeoisie. With 
the rapid development of industrial civilization, landed property is 
falling behind in relation to personal property: the principle of family 
group unity is losing force. The mobility of capital allows its holder to 
own and dispose of his wealth without reciprocity instead of being 
held by it. Through patrimony, woman was substantially attached to 
her husband: with patrimony abolished, they are only juxtaposed, and 
even children do not constitute as strong a bond as interest. Thus, the 
individual will assert himself against the group; this evolution is 
particularly striking in America, where modern capitalism has 
triumphed: divorce is going to flourish, and husbands and wives are 
no more than provisional associates. In France, where the rural 
population is large and where the Napoleonic Code placed the married 
woman under guardianship, evolution will be slow. In 1884, divorce 
was restored, and a wife could obtain it if the husband committed 
adultery; nonetheless, in the penal area, sexual difference was 
maintained: adultery was an offense only when perpetrated by the 
wife. The right of guardianship, granted with restrictions in 1907, was 
fully granted only in 1917. In 1912, the right to determine natural 
paternity was authorized. It was not until 1938 and 1942 that the 
married woman's status was modified: the duty of obedience was 
then abrogated, although the father remains the family head; he 
determines the place of residence, but the wife can oppose his choice 
if she advances valid arguments; her powers are increasing; but the 
formula is still confused: "The married woman has full legal powers. 
These powers are only limited by the marriage contract and law"; the 
last part of the article contradicts the first. The equality of spouses has 
not yet been achieved. 

As for political rights, they have not easily been won in France, 
England, or the United States. In 1867, John Stuart Mill pleaded the 
first case ever officially pronounced before Parliament in favor of the 
vote for women. In his writings he imperiously demanded equality of 
men and women in the family and society: "The principle which 


regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes — the 
legal subordination of one sex to the other — is wrong in itself, and 
now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and ... it 
ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality."* After that, 
English women organized politically under Mrs. Fawcett's leadership; 
French women rallied behind Maria Deraismes, who between 1868 
and 1871 dealt with women's issues in a series of public lectures; she 
joined in the lively controversy against Alexandre Dumas fils, who 
advised the husband of an unfaithful wife, "Kill her." Leon Richer 
was the true founder of feminism; in 1869 he launched Le Droit des 
Femmes (The Rights of Women) and organized the International 
Congress of Women's Rights, held in 1878. The question of the right 
to vote was not yet dealt with; women limited themselves to claiming 
civil rights; for thirty years the movement remained timid in France 
and in England. Nonetheless, a woman, Hubertine Auclert, started a 
suffragette campaign; she created a group called Women's Suffrage 
and a newspaper, La Citoyenne. Many groups were organized under 
her influence, but they accomplished little. This weakness of feminism 
stemmed from its internal division; as already pointed out, women as 
a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; bourgeois 
and proletarian interests do not intersect. Revolutionary feminism 
adhered to the Saint- Simonian and Marxist tradition; it is noteworthy, 
moreover, that a certain Louise Michel spoke against feminism 
because it diverted the energy that should be used entirely for class 
struggle; with the abolition of capital the lot of woman will be 

The Socialist Congress of 1879 proclaimed the equality of the 
sexes, and as of that time the feminist-socialist alliance would no 
longer be denounced, but since women hope for their liberty through 
the emancipation of workers in general, their attachment to their own 
cause is secondary. The bourgeoisie, on the contrary, claim new rights 
within existing society, and they refuse to be revolutionary; they want 
to introduce virtuous reforms into rules of behavior: elimination of 
alcohol, pornographic literature, and prostitution. In 1892, the 
Feminist Congress convenes and gives its name to the movement, but 
nothing comes of it. However, in 1897 a law is passed permitting 
women to testify in court, but the request of a woman doctor of law to 
become a member of the bar is denied. In 1898, women are allowed to 


vote for the Commercial Court, to vote and be eligible for the National 
Council on Labor and Employment, to be admitted to the National 
Council for Public Health Services, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 
1900, feminists hold a new congress, again without significant 
results. But in 1901, for the first time, Viviani presents the question of 
the woman's vote to the French parliament; he proposes limiting 
suffrage to unmarried and divorced women. The feminist movement 
gains importance at this time. In 1909 the French Union for Women's 
Suffrage is formed, headed by Mme Brunschvicg; she organizes 
lectures, meetings, congresses, and demonstrations. In 1909, Buisson 
presents a report on Dussaussoy's bill allowing women to vote in 
local assemblies. In 1910, Thomas presents a bill in favor of women's 
suffrage; presented again in 1918, it passes the Chamber in 1919; but 
it fails to pass the Senate in 1922. The situation is quite complex. 
Christian feminism joins forces with revolutionary feminism and 
Mme Brunschvicg 's so-called independent feminism: in 1919, 
Benedict XV declares himself in favor of the women's vote, and 
Monsignor Baudrillart and Pere Sertillanges follow his lead with 
ardent propaganda; Catholics believe in fact that women in France 
constitute a conservative and religious element; this is just what the 
radicals fear: the real reason for their opposition is their fear of the 
swing votes that women represented. In the Senate, numerous 
Catholics, the Union Republican group, and extreme left parties are 
for the women's vote: but the majority of the assembly is against it. 
Until 1932 delaying procedures are used by the majority, which 
refuses to discuss bills concerning women's suffrage; nevertheless, in 
1932, the Chamber having voted the women's voting and eligibility 
amendment, 319 votes to 1, the Senate opens a debate extending over 
several sessions: the amendment is voted down. The record in 
L 'officiel is of great importance; all the antifeminist arguments 
developed over half a century are found in the report, which 
fastidiously lists all the works in which they are mentioned. First of 
all come these types of gallantry arguments: we love women too much 
to let them vote; the "real woman" who accepts the "housewife or 
courtesan" dilemma is exalted in true Proudhon fashion; woman 
would lose her charm by voting; she is on a pedestal and should not 
step down from it; she has everything to lose and nothing to gain in 
becoming a voter; she governs men without needing a ballot; and so 


on. More serious objections concern the family's interest: woman's 
place is in the home; political discussions would bring about 
disagreement between spouses. Some admit to moderate 
antifeminism. Women are different from men. They do not serve in 
the military. Will prostitutes vote? And others arrogantly affirm male 
superiority: voting is a duty and not a right; women are not worthy of 
it. They are less intelligent and educated than men. If women voted, 
men would become effeminate. Women lacked political education. 
They would vote according to their husbands' wishes. If they want to 
be free, they should first free themselves from their dressmakers. 
Also proposed is that superbly naive argument: there are more women 
in France than men. In spite of the flimsiness of all these objections, 
French women would have to wait until 1945 to acquire political 

New Zealand gave woman full rights in 1893. Australia followed 
in 1908. But in England and America victory was difficult. Victorian 
England imperiously isolated woman in her home; Jane Austen wrote 
in secret; it took great courage or an exceptional destiny to become 
George Eliot or Emily Bronte; in 1888 an English scholar wrote: 
"Women are not only not part of the race, they are not even half of the 
race but a sub-species destined uniquely for reproduction." Mrs. 
Fawcett founded a suffragist movement toward the end of the century, 
but as in France the movement was hesitant. Around 1903, feminist 
claims took a singular turn. In London, the Pankhurst family created 
the Women's Social and Political Union, which joined with the 
Labour Party and embarked on resolutely militant activities. It was the 
first time in history that women took on a cause as women: this is 
what gave particular interest to the suffragettes in England and 
America. For fifteen years, they carried out a policy recalling in some 
respects a Gandhi-like attitude: refusing violence, they invented more 
or less ingenious symbolic actions. They marched on the Albert Hall 
during Liberal Party meetings, carrying banners with the words "Vote 
for Women"; they forced their way into Lord Asquith's office, held 
meetings in Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square, marched in the streets 
carrying signs, and held lectures; during demonstrations they insulted 
the police or threw stones at them, provoking their arrest; in prison 
they adopted the hunger strike tactic; they raised money and rallied 
millions of women and men; they influenced opinion so well that in 


1907 two hundred members of Parliament made up a committee for 
women's suffrage; every year from then on some of them would 
propose a law in favor of women's suffrage, a law that would be 
rejected every year with the same arguments. In 1907 the WSPU 
organized the first march on Parliament with workers covered in 
shawls, and a few aristocratic women; the police pushed them back; 
but the following year, as married women were threatened with a ban 
on work in certain mines, the Lancashire women workers were called 
by the WSPU to hold a grand meeting. There were new arrests, and 
the imprisoned suffragettes responded with a long hunger strike. 
Released, they organized new parades: one of the women rode a horse 
painted with the head of Queen Elizabeth. On July 18, 1910, the day 
the women's suffrage law went to the Chamber, a nine-kilometer-long 
column paraded through London; the law rejected, there were more 
meetings and new arrests. In 1912, they adopted a more violent tactic: 
they burned empty houses, slashed pictures, trampled flower beds, 
threw stones at the police; at the same time, they sent delegation upon 
delegation to Lloyd George and Sir Edward Grey; they hid in the 
Albert Hall and noisily disrupted Lloyd George's speeches. The war 
interrupted their activities. It is difficult to know how much these 
actions hastened events. The vote was granted to English women first 
in 1918 in a restricted form, and then in 1928 without restriction: their 
success was in large part due to the services they had rendered during 
the war. 

The American woman found herself at first more emancipated than 
the European. Early in the nineteenth century, pioneer women had to 
share the hard work done by men, and they fought by their sides; they 
were far fewer than men, and thus a high value was placed on them. 
But little by little, their condition came to resemble that of women in 
the Old World; gallantry toward them was maintained; they kept their 
cultural privileges and a dominant position within the family; laws 
granted them a religious and moral role; but the command of society 
resided in the males' hands. Some women began to claim their 
political rights around 1830. They undertook a campaign in favor of 
blacks. As the antislavery congress held in 1840 in London was 
closed to them, the Quaker Lucretia Mott founded a feminist 
association. On July 18, 1840,* at the Seneca Falls Convention, they 
drafted a Quaker-inspired declaration, which set the tone for all of 


American feminism: "that all men and women are created equal; that 
they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 
rights . . . that to secure these rights governments are instituted ... He 
[Man] has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly 
dead ... He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming 
it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to 
her conscience and her God." Three years later, Harriet Beecher 
Stowe wrote Uncle Tom s Cabin , arousing the public in favor of 
blacks. Emerson and Lincoln supported the feminist movement. When 
the Civil War broke out, women ardently participated; but in vain they 
demanded that the amendment giving blacks the right to vote be 
drafted as follows: "The right ... to vote shall not be denied or 
abridged ... on account of race, color, sex." Seizing on the ambiguity 
of one of the articles to the amendment, the great feminist leader 
Susan B. Anthony voted in Rochester with fourteen comrades; she 
was fined a hundred dollars. In 1869, she founded what later came to 
be called the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and 
that same year the state of Wyoming gave women the right to vote. 
But it was only in 1893 that Colorado, then in 1896 Idaho and Utah, 
followed this example. Progress was slow afterward. But women 
succeeded better economically than in Europe. In 1900, 5 million 
women worked, 1.3 million in industry, 500,000 in business; a large 
number worked in business, industry, and liberal professions. There 
were lawyers, doctors, and 3,373 women pastors. The famous Mary 
Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Church. Women formed 
clubs; in 1900, they totaled about 2 million members. 

Nonetheless, only nine states had given women the vote. In 1913, 
the suffrage movement was organized on the militant English model. 
Two women led it: Doris Stevens and a young Quaker, Alice Paul. 
From Wilson they obtained the right to march with banners and 
signs;* they then organized a campaign of lectures, meetings, 
marches, and manifestations of all sorts. From the nine states where 
women voted, women voters went with great pomp and circumstance 
to the Capitol, demanding the feminine vote for the whole nation. In 
Chicago, the first group of women assembled in a party to liberate 
their sex; this assembly became the Women's Party. In 1917, 
suffragettes invented a new tactic: they stationed themselves at the 
doors of the White House, banners in hand, and often chained to the 


gates so they could not be driven away. After six months, they were 
stopped and sent to the Occoquan penitentiary; they went on a hunger 
strike and were finally released. New demonstrations led to the 
beginning of riots. The government finally consented to naming a 
House Committee on Woman Suffrage. The executive committee of 
the Women's Party held a conference in Washington, and an 
amendment favoring the woman's vote went to the House and was 
voted on January 10, 1918. The vote still had to go to the Senate. 
Wilson would not promise to exert enough pressure, so the 
suffragettes began to demonstrate again. They held a rally at the White 
House doors. The president decided to address an appeal to the 
Senate, but the amendment was rejected by two votes. A Republican 
Congress voted for the amendment in June 1919. The battle for 
complete equality of the sexes went on for the next ten years. At the 
sixth International Conference of American States held in Havana in 
1928, women obtained the creation of the Inter-American 
Commission of Women. In 1933, the Montevideo treaties elevated 
women's status by international convention. Nineteen American 
republics signed the convention giving women equality in all rights. 

Sweden also had a very sizable feminist movement. Invoking old 
traditions, Swedish women demanded the right "to education, work, 
and liberty." It was largely women writers who led the fight, and it 
was the moral aspect of the problem that interested them at first; then, 
grouped in powerful associations, they won over the liberals but ran 
up against the hostility of the conservatives. Norwegian women in 
1907 and Finnish women in 1906 obtained the suffrage that Swedish 
women would have to wait years to attain. 

In Latin and Eastern countries woman was oppressed by customs 
more than by laws. In Italy, fascism systematically hindered 
feminism's progress. Seeking the alliance of the Church, which 
continued to uphold family tradition and a tradition of feminine 
slavery, Fascist Italy held woman in double bondage: to public 
authority and to her husband. The situation was very different in 
Germany. In 1790, Hippel, a student, launched the first German 
feminist manifesto. Sentimental feminism analogous to that of George 
Sand flourished at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1848, 
the first German woman feminist, Louise Otto, demanded the right for 
women to assist in the transformation of their country: her feminism 


was largely nationalistic. She founded the General German Women's 
Association in 1865. German socialists, along with Bebel, advocated 
the abolition of the inequality of the sexes. In 1892, Clara Zetkin 
joined the party's council. Women workers and women socialists 
grouped together in a federation. German women failed in 1914 to 
establish a women's national army, but they took an active part in the 
war. After the German defeat, they obtained the right to vote and 
participated in political life: Rosa Luxemburg fought next to 
Liebknecht in the Spartacus group and was assassinated in 1919. The 
majority of German women chose the party of order; several took 
seats in the Reichstag. It was thus upon emancipated women that 
Hitler imposed the new Napoleonic ideal: "Kinder, Kiiche, Kirche. " 
"Woman's presence dishonors the Reichstag," he declared. As 
Nazism was anti-Catholic and antibourgeois, he gave the mother a 
privileged place; protection granted to unmarried mothers and 
illegitimate children greatly freed woman from marriage; as in Sparta, 
she was more dependent on the state than on any individual, giving 
her both more and less autonomy than a bourgeois woman living 
under a capitalist regime. 

In Soviet Russia the feminist movement made the greatest 
advances. It began at the end of the nineteenth century among women 
students of the intelligentsia; they were less attached to their personal 
cause than to revolutionary action in general; they "went to the 
people" and used nihilistic methods against the Okhrana: in 1878 
Vera Zasulich shot the police chief Trepov. During the Russo- 
Japanese War, women replaced men in many areas of work; their 
consciousness raised, the Russian Union for Women's rights 
demanded political equality of the sexes; in the first Duma, a 
parliamentary women's rights group was created, but it was 
powerless. Women workers' emancipation would come from the 
revolution. Already in 1905, they were actively participating in the 
mass political strikes that broke out in the country, and they mounted 
the barricades. On March 8, 1917, International Women's Day and a 
few days before the revolution, they massively demonstrated in the 
streets of St. Petersburg demanding bread, peace, and their husbands' 
return. They took part in the October insurrection; between 1918 and 
1920, they played an important economic and even military role in the 
U.S.S.R.'s fight against the invaders. True to Marxist tradition, Lenin 


linked women's liberation to that of the workers; he gave them 
political and economic equality. 

Article 122 of the 1936 constitution stipulates: "In the U.S.S.R., 
woman enjoys the same rights as man in all aspects of economic, 
official, cultural, public, and political life." And these principles were 
spelled out by the Communist International. It demands "social 
equality of man and woman before the law and in daily life. Radical 
transformation in conjugal rights and in the family code. Recognition 
of maternity as a social function. Entrusting society with the care and 
education of children and adolescents. Organization of a civil effort 
against ideology and traditions that make woman a slave." In the 
economic area, woman's conquests were stunning. She obtained 
equal wages with male workers, and she took on a highly active role 
in production; thereby gaining considerable political and social 
importance. The brochure recently published by the Association 
France-U.S.S.R. reports that in the 1939 general elections there were 
457,000 women deputies in the regional, district, town, and village 
Soviets; 1,480 in the socialist republics of higher Soviets, and 227 
seated in the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. Close to 10 million are 
members of unions. They constitute 40 percent of the population of 
U.S.S.R. workers and employees, and a great number of workers 
among the Stakhanovites are women. The role of Russian women in 
the last war is well-known; they provided an enormous labor force 
even in production branches where masculine professions are 
dominant: metallurgy and mining, timber rafting and railways, and so 
forth. They distinguished themselves as pilots and parachutists, and 
they formed partisan armies. 

This participation of woman in public life has raised a difficult 
problem: her role in family life. For a long while, means were sought 
to free her from her domestic constraints: on November 16, 1942, the 
plenary assembly of the Comintern proclaimed, "The revolution is 
impotent as long as the notion of family and family relations 
subsists." Respect for free unions, liberalization of divorce, and 
legalization of abortion ensured woman's liberty relative to men; laws 
for maternity leave, child-care centers, kindergartens, and so on 
lightened the burdens of motherhood. From passionate and 
contradictory witness reports, it is difficult to discern what woman's 
concrete situation really was; what is sure is that today the demands of 


repopulation have given rise to a different family policy: the family 
has become the elementary social cell, and woman is both worker and 
housekeeper. 7 Sexual morality is at its strictest; since the law of June 
1936, reinforced by that of June 7, 1941, abortion has been banned 
and divorce almost suppressed; adultery is condemned by moral 
standards. Strictly subordinated to the state like all workers, strictly 
bound to the home, but with access to political life and the dignity that 
productive work gives, the Russian woman is in a singular situation 
that would be worth studying in its singularity; circumstances 
unfortunately prevent me from doing this. 

The recent session of the United Nations Commission on the Status 
of Women demanded that equal rights for both sexes be recognized in 
all nations, and several motions were passed to make this legal status 
a concrete reality. It would seem, then, that the match is won. The 
future can only bring greater and greater assimilation of women in a 
hitherto masculine society. 

Several conclusions come to the fore when taking a look at this 
history as a whole. And first of all this one: women's entire history 
has been written by men. Just as in America there is no black problem 
but a white one, 8 just as "anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, it's 
our problem," 9 so the problem of woman has always been a problem 
of men. Why they had moral prestige at the outset along with physical 
strength has been discussed; they created the values, customs, and 
religions; never did women attempt to vie for that empire. A few 
isolated women — Sappho, Christine de Pizan, Mary Wollstonecraft, 
Olympe de Gouges — protested against their harsh destiny; and there 
were some collective demonstrations: but Roman matrons in league 
against the Oppian Law or Anglo-Saxon suffragettes only managed to 
wield pressure because men were willing to submit to it. Men always 
held woman's lot in their hands; and they did not decide on it based 
on her interest; it is their own projects, fears, and needs that counted. 
When they revered the Mother Goddess, it is because Nature 
frightened them, and as soon as the bronze tool enabled them to assert 
themselves against Nature, they instituted patriarchy; henceforth it 
was the family-state conflict that has defined woman's status; it is the 
attitude of the Christian before God, the world, and his own flesh that 


is reflected in the condition he assigned to her; what was called the 
querelle des femmes in the Middle Ages was a quarrel between clergy 
and laity about marriage and celibacy; it is the social regime founded 
on private property that brought about the married woman's 
wardship, and it is the technical revolution realized by men that 
enfranchised today's women. It is an evolution of the masculine ethic 
that led to the decrease in family size by birth control and partially 
freed woman from the servitude of motherhood. Feminism itself has 
never been an autonomous movement: it was partially an instrument 
in the hands of politicians and partially an epiphenomenon reflecting a 
deeper social drama. Never did women form a separate caste: and in 
reality they never sought to play a role in history as a sex. The 
doctrines that call for the advent of woman as flesh, life, immanence, 
or the Other are masculine ideologies that do not in any way express 
feminine claims. For the most part, women resign themselves to their 
lot without attempting any action; those who did try to change 
attempted to overcome their singularity and not to confine themselves 
in it triumphantly. When they intervened in world affairs, it was in 
concert with men and from a masculine point of view. 

This intervention, in general, was secondary and occasional. The 
women who enjoyed a certain economic autonomy and took part in 
production were the oppressed classes, and as workers they were 
even more enslaved than male workers. In the ruling classes woman 
was a parasite and as such was subjugated to masculine laws: in both 
cases, it was almost impossible for her to act. Law and custom did not 
always coincide: and a balance was set up between them so that 
woman was never concretely free. In the ancient Roman Republic, 
economic conditions give the matron concrete powers: but she has no 
legal independence; the same is often true in peasant civilizations and 
among lower-middle-class tradesmen; mistress-servant inside the 
home, woman is socially a minor. Inversely, in periods when society 
fragments, woman becomes freer, but she loses her fief when she 
ceases to be man's vassal; she has nothing but a negative freedom that 
is expressed only in license and dissipation, as for example, during 
the Roman decadence, the Renaissance, the eighteenth century, and 
the Directoire. Either she finds work but is enslaved, or she is 
enfranchised but can do nothing else with herself. It is worth noting 
among other points that the married woman had her place in society 


but without benefiting from any rights, while the single woman, 
honest girl or prostitute, had all man's capacities; but until this century 
she was more or less excluded from social life. The opposition 
between law and custom produced this among other curious 
paradoxes: free love is not prohibited by law, but adultery is a crime; 
the girl that "falls," however, is often dishonored, while the wife's 
shocking behavior is treated indulgently: from the eighteenth century 
to today many young girls got married so that they could freely have 
lovers. This ingenious system kept the great mass of women under 
guardianship: it takes exceptional circumstances for a feminine 
personality to be able to affirm itself between these two series of 
constraints, abstract or concrete. Women who have accomplished 
works comparable to men's are those whom the force of social 
institutions had exalted beyond any sexual differentiation. Isabella the 
Catholic, Elizabeth of England, and Catherine of Russia were neither 
male nor female: they were sovereigns. It is remarkable that once 
socially abolished, their femininity no longer constituted inferiority: 
there were infinitely more queens with great reigns than kings. 
Religion undergoes the same transformation: Catherine of Siena and 
Saint Teresa are saintly souls, beyond any physiological condition; 
their lay life and their mystical life, their actions and their writings, 
rise to heights that few men ever attain. It is legitimate to think that if 
other women failed to mark the world deeply, it is because they were 
trapped by their conditions. They were only able to intervene in a 
negative or indirect way. Judith, Charlotte Corday, and Vera Zasulich 
assassinate; the Frondeuses conspire; during the Revolution and the 
Commune, women fight alongside men against the established order; 
intransigent refusal and revolt against a freedom without rights and 
power are permitted, whereas it is forbidden for a woman to 
participate in positive construction; at best she will manage to 
insinuate herself into masculine enterprises by indirect means. 
Aspasia, Mme de Maintenon, and the princesse des Ursins were 
precious advisers: but someone still had to consent to listen to them. 
Men tend to exaggerate the scope of this influence when trying to 
convince woman she has the greater role; but in fact feminine voices 
are silenced when concrete action begins; they might foment wars, not 
suggest battle tactics; they oriented politics only inasmuch as politics 
was limited to intrigue: the real reins of the world have never been in 


women's hands; they had no role either in technology or in economy, 
they neither made nor unmade states, they did not discover worlds. 
They did set off some events: but they were pretexts more than 
agents. Lucretia's suicide had no more than a symbolic value. 
Martyrdom remains allowed for the oppressed; during Christian 
persecutions and in the aftermath of social or national defeats, women 
played this role of witness; but a martyr has never changed the face of 
the world. Even feminine demonstrations and initiatives were only 
worth something if a masculine decision positively prolonged them. 
The American women united around Harriet Beecher Stowe aroused 
public opinion to fever pitch against slavery; but the real reasons for 
the Civil War were not sentimental. The March 8, 1917, "woman's 
day" might have triggered the Russian Revolution: but it was 
nonetheless merely a signal. Most feminine heroines are extravagant: 
adventurers or eccentrics notable less for their actions than for their 
unique destinies; take Joan of Arc, Mme Roland, and Flora Tristan: if 
they are compared with Richelieu, Danton, or Lenin, it is clear their 
greatness is mainly subjective; they are exemplary figures more than 
historical agents. A great man springs from the mass and is carried by 
circumstances: the mass of women is at the fringes of history, and for 
each of them circumstances are an obstacle and not a springboard. To 
change the face of the world, one has first to be firmly anchored to it; 
but women firmly rooted in society are those subjugated by it; unless 
they are designated for action by divine right — and in this case they 
are shown to be as capable as men — the ambitious woman and the 
heroine are strange monsters. Only since women have begun to feel at 
home on this earth has a Rosa Luxemburg or a Mme Curie emerged. 
They brilliantly demonstrate that it is not women's inferiority that has 
determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical 
insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority. 10 

This fact is striking in the cultural field, the area in which they have 
been the most successful in asserting themselves. Their lot has been 
closely linked to literature and the arts; among the ancient Germans, 
the roles of prophetess and priestess fell to women; because they are 
marginal to the world, men will look to them when they strive, 
through culture, to bridge the limits of their universe and reach what is 
other. Courtly mysticism, humanist curiosity, and the taste for beauty 
that thrive in the Italian Renaissance, the preciousness of the 


seventeenth century, and the progressive ideal of the eighteenth 
century bring about an exaltation of femininity in diverse forms. 
Woman is thus the main pole of poetry and the substance of works of 
art; her leisure allows her to devote herself to the pleasures of the 
mind: inspiration, critic, writer's audience, she emulates the writer; 
she can often impose a type of sensitivity, an ethic that feeds men's 
hearts, which is how she intervenes in her own destiny: women's 
education is mainly a feminine conquest. And yet as important as this 
collective role played by intellectual women is, their individual 
contributions are, on the whole, of a lesser order. Woman holds a 
privileged place in the fields of the mind and art because she is not 
involved in action; but art and thinking derive their impetus in action. 
Being on the fringes of the world is not the best place for someone 
who intends to re-create it: here again, to go beyond the given, one 
must be deeply rooted in it. Personal accomplishments are almost 
impossible in human categories collectively kept in an inferior 
situation. "Where can one go in skirts?" asked Marie Bashkirtseff 
And Stendhal: "All the geniuses who are born women are lost for the 
public good." If truth be told, one is not born, but becomes, a genius; 
and the feminine condition has, until now, rendered this becoming 

Antifeminists draw two contradictory arguments from examining 
history: (1) women have never created anything grand; (2) woman's 
situation has never prevented great women personalities from 
blossoming. There is bad faith in both of these assertions; the 
successes of some few privileged women neither compensate for nor 
excuse the systematic degrading of the collective level; and the very 
fact that these successes are so rare and limited is proof of their 
unfavorable circumstances. As Christine de Pizan, Poulain de la 
Barre, Condorcet, John Stuart Mill, and Stendhal stated, women have 
never been given their chances in any area. This explains why many 
of them today demand a new status; and once again, their demand is 
not to be exalted in their femininity: they want transcendence to 
prevail over immanence in themselves as in all of humanity; they want 
abstract rights and concrete possibilities to be granted to them, without 
which freedom is merely mystification. 11 

This will is being fulfilled. But this is a period of transition; this 
world that has always belonged to men is still in their hands; 


patriarchal civilization's institutions and values are still, to a great 
extent, alive. Abstract rights are far from being wholly granted to 
women: in Switzerland, women still cannot vote; in France, the 1942 
law upholds the husband's prerogatives in a weaker form. And 
abstract rights, as has just been said, have never been sufficient to 
guarantee woman a concrete hold on the world: there is not yet real 
equality today between the two sexes. 

First, the burdens of marriage are still much heavier for woman 
than for man. We have seen that the constraints of pregnancy have 
been limited by the overt or clandestine use of birth control, but the 
practice is neither universally disseminated nor rigorously applied; as 
abortion is officially forbidden, many women either jeopardize their 
health by resorting to unregulated abortion methods or are 
overwhelmed by the number of their pregnancies. Child care, like 
housekeeping, is still almost exclusively the woman's burden. In 
France in particular, the antifeminist tradition is so tenacious that a 
man would think it demeaning to participate in chores previously 
reserved for women. The result is that woman has a harder time 
reconciling her family and work life. In cases where society demands 
this effort from her, her existence is much more difficult than her 

Take, for example, the lot of peasant women. In France they make 
up the majority of the women involved in productive labor, and they 
are generally married. The single woman most often remains a servant 
in the father's, brother's, or sister's household; she only becomes 
mistress of a home by accepting a husband's domination; depending 
on the region, customs and traditions impose various roles on her: the 
Norman peasant woman presides over the meal, while the Corsican 
woman does not sit at the same table as the men; but in any case, as 
she plays one of the most important roles in the domestic economy, 
she shares the man's responsibilities, his interests, and his property; 
she is respected, and it is often she who really governs: her situation 
is reminiscent of the place she held in ancient agricultural 
communities. She often has as much moral prestige as her husband, 
and sometimes even more; but her concrete condition is much harsher. 
The care of the garden, barnyard, sheepfold, and pigpen falls on her 
alone; she takes part in the heavy work: cleaning the cowshed, 
spreading the manure, sowing, plowing, hoeing, and hay making; she 


digs, weeds, harvests, picks grapes, and sometimes helps load and 
unload wagons of straw, hay, wood and sticks, litter, and so on. In 
addition, she prepares the meals and manages the household: 
washing, mending, and such. She assumes the heavy burdens of 
pregnancies and child care. She rises at dawn, feeds the barnyard and 
small animals, serves the first meal to the men, takes care of the 
children, and goes out to the fields or the woods or the kitchen 
garden; she draws water from the well, serves the second meal, 
washes the dishes, works in the fields again until dinner, and after the 
last meal occupies her evening by mending, cleaning, husking the 
corn, and so forth. As she has no time to take care of her health, even 
during her pregnancies, she loses her shape quickly and is 
prematurely withered and worn out, sapped by illnesses. She is 
denied the few occasional compensations man finds in his social life: 
he goes to the city on Sundays and fair days, meets other men, goes to 
the cafe, drinks, plays cards, hunts, and fishes. She stays on the farm 
and has no leisure. Only the rich peasant women helped by servants 
or dispensed from field work lead a pleasantly balanced life: they are 
socially honored and enjoy greater authority in the home without 
being crushed by labor. But most of the time rural work reduces 
woman to the condition of a beast of burden. 

The woman shopkeeper, the small-business owner, have always 
been privileged; they are the only ones since the Middle Ages whose 
civil capacities have been recognized by the code; women grocers, 
hoteliers, or tobacconists and dairy women have positions equal to 
man's; single or widowed, they have a legal identity of their own; 
married, they possess the same autonomy as their husbands. They are 
fortunate in working and living in the same place, and the work is not 
generally too consuming. 

The situation of the woman worker, employee, secretary, or 
saleswoman working outside the home is totally different. It is much 
more difficult to reconcile her job with managing the household 
(errands, preparation of meals, cleaning, and upkeep of her wardrobe 
take at least three and a half hours of work a day and six on Sunday; 
this adds a lot of time to factory or office hours). As for the learned 
professions, even if women lawyers, doctors, and teachers manage to 
have some help in their households, the home and children still entail 
responsibilities and cares that are a serious handicap for them. In 


America, ingenious technology has simplified housework; but the 
appearance and elegance demanded of the working woman impose 
another constraint on her; and she maintains responsibility for the 
house and children. In addition, the woman who seeks her 
independence through work has far fewer possibilities than her 
masculine competitors. Her salary is inferior to man's in many fields; 
her job is less specialized and hence doesn't pay as well as that of a 
skilled worker; and for the same job, the woman is paid less. Because 
she is new to the world of males, she has fewer chances of success 
than they. Men and women alike are loath to work under a woman's 
orders; they always give more confidence to a man; if being a woman 
is not a defect, it is at least a pecularity. If she wants to "get ahead," it 
is useful for a woman to make sure she has a man's support. Men are 
the ones who take the best places, who hold the most important jobs. 
It must be emphasized that in economic terms men and women 
constitute two castes. 12 

What determines women's present situation is the stubborn 
survival of the most ancient traditions in the new emerging 
civilization. Hasty observers are wrong to think woman is not up to 
the possibilities offered her today or even to see only dangerous 
temptations in these possibilities. The truth is that her situation is 
tenuous, which makes it very difficult for her to adapt. Factories, 
offices, and universities are open to women, but marriage is still 
considered a more honorable career, exempting her from any other 
participation in collective life. As in primitive civilizations, the 
amorous act is a service she has the right to be paid for more or less 
directly. Everywhere but in the U.S.S.R., 13 the modern woman is 
allowed to use her body as capital. Prostitution is tolerated, 14 
seduction encouraged. And the married woman can legally make her 
husband support her; in addition, she is cloaked in much greater social 
dignity than the unmarried woman. Social customs are far from 
granting her sexual possibilities on a par with those of the single male, 
in particular, the unwed mother is an object of scandal, as motherhood 
is more or less forbidden to her. How could the Cinderella myth not 
retain its validity? Everything still encourages the girl to expect 
fortune and happiness from a "Prince Charming" instead of 
attempting the difficult and uncertain conquest alone. For example, 
she can hope to attain a higher caste through him, a miracle her whole 


life's work will not bring her. But such a hope is harmful because it 
divides her strength and interests; 15 this split is perhaps the most 
serious handicap for woman. Parents still raise their daughters for 
marriage rather than promoting their personal development; and the 
daughter sees so many advantages that she desires it herself; the result 
is that she is often less specialized, less solidly trained than her 
brothers, she is less totally committed to her profession; as such, she 
is doomed to remain inferior in it; and the vicious circle is knotted: 
this inferiority reinforces her desire to find a husband. Every benefit 
always has a burden; but if the burden is too heavy, the benefit is no 
more than a servitude; for most workers today, work is a thankless 
task: for woman, the chore is not offset by a concrete conquest of her 
social dignity, freedom of behavior, and economic autonomy; it is 
understandable that many women workers and employees see no 
more than an obligation in the right to work from which marriage 
would deliver them. However, because she has become conscious of 
self and can emancipate herself from marriage through work, a 
woman no longer accepts her subjection docilely. What she would 
hope for is to reconcile family life and profession, something that 
does not require exhausting acrobatics. Even then, as long as the 
temptations of facility remain — from the economic inequality that 
favors certain individuals and the woman's right to sell herself to one 
of these privileged people — she needs to expend a greater moral effort 
than the male to choose the path of independence. It has not been well 
enough understood that temptation is also an obstacle, and even one 
of the most dangerous. It is amplified here by a mystification since 
there will be one winner out of the thousands in the lucky marriage 
lottery. Today's period invites, even obliges women to work; but it 
lures them with an idyllic and delightful paradise: it raises up the 
happy few far above those still riveted to this earthly world. 

Men's economic privilege, their social value, the prestige of 
marriage, the usefulness of masculine support — all these encourage 
women to ardently want to please men. They are on the whole still in 
a state of serfdom. It follows that woman knows and chooses herself 
not as she exists for herself but as man defines her. She thus has to be 
described first as men dream of her since her being-for-men is one of 
the essential factors of her concrete condition. 


* The "baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's little boy" refer to King Louis XVI, the 
queen, and the dauphin, forced by the starving people to leave Versailles for Paris in 
October 1789.— TRANS. 

* The correct date is 1816. — TRANS. 

* Beauvoir's calculation. — TRANS. 

1. Truquin, Memoires et aventures d'un proletaire (Memoirs and Adventures of a 
Proletarian in Times of Revolution). Cited from E. Dolleans, Histoire du mouvement 
ouvrier (History of the Working-Class Movement), Volume 1 . 

2. "The earliest known reference to birth-control methods appears to be an Egyptian 
papyrus from the second millennium B.C., recommending the vaginal application of a 
bizarre mixture composed of crocodile excrement, honey, natron, and a rubbery 
substance" (P. Aries, Histoire des populations francaises [History of French 
Populations]). Medieval Persian physicians knew of thirty-one recipes, of which only 
nine were intended for men. Soranus, in the Hadrian era, explains that at the moment of 
ejaculation, if the woman does not want a child, she should "hold her breath, pull back 
her body a little so that the sperm cannot penetrate the os uteri, get up immediately, 
squat down, and make herself sneeze." 

3. In La precieuse (1 656) (The Precious Woman). 

4. "Around 1930 an American firm sold twenty million prophylactics in one year. 
Fifteen American factories produced a million and a half of them per day" (P. Aries, 

5. "The infant, before being born, is a part of the woman, a kind of organ." 

6. In Volume II, we will return to the discussion of this view. Let it just be said here 
that Catholics are far from keeping to the letter of Saint Augustine's doctrine. The 
confessor whispers to the young fiancee, on the eve of her wedding, that she can do 
anything with her husband, as long as "proper" coitus is achieved; positive birth- 
control practices — including coitus interruptus — are forbidden; but the calendar 
established by Viennese sexologists can be used, where the act whose only recognized 
aim is reproduction is carried out on the days conception is impossible for the woman. 
There are spiritual advisers who even indicate this calendar to their flocks. In fact, 
there are ample "Christian mothers" who only have two or three children and have 
nonetheless not interrupted their conjugal relations after the last delivery. 

* From John Stuart Mill, "The Subjection of Women," as reprinted in Philosophy of 
Woman, edited by Mary Briody Mahowald. 

* The convention actually took place July 19-20, 1848. — TRANS. 

* That is, President Woodrow Wilson. — TRANS. 


7. Olga Michakova, secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth 
Organization, stated in 1944 in an interview: "Soviet women should try to make 
themselves as attractive as nature and good taste permit. After the war, they should 
dress like women and act feminine ... Girls will be told to act and walk like girls, and 
that is why they will wear skirts that will probably be very tight, making them carry 
themselves gracefully." 

8. Cf. Myrdal,^4n American Dilemma. 

9. Jean-Paul Sartre, Reflexions sur la question juive (Anti-Semite and Jew). 

10. It is worth noting that out of one thousand statues in Paris (not counting the 
queens that compose the corbel of the Luxembourg and fulfill a purely architectural 
role) there are only ten raised to women. Three are devoted to Joan of Arc. The others 
are Mme de Segur, George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, Mme Boucicaut and the baronne de 
Hirsch, Maria Deraismes, and Rosa Bonheur. 

11. Here too the antifeminists are equivocal. At times, holding abstract liberty to be 
nothing, they glorify the great concrete role the enslaved woman can play in this 
world: What more does she want? And other times, they underestimate the fact that 
negative license does not open any concrete possibilities, and they blame abstractly 
enfranchised women fornot having proven themselves. 

12. In America, great business fortunes often end up in women's hands: younger than 
their husbands, women outlive and inherit from them; but they are then older and 
rarely take the initiative of new investments; they act as usufructuaries rather than 
owners. It is men who dispose of the capital. In any case, these rich privileged women 
make up a small minority. In America more than in Europe, it is almost impossible for 
a woman to reach a top position as a lawyer or doctor. 

13. At least according to official doctrine. 

14. In Anglo-Saxon countries prostitution has never been controlled. Until 1900, 
American and English common law did not deem it a crime unless it was scandalous 
and disturbed the peace. Since then, there has been more or less repression, applied 
with varying degrees of harshness and of success in England and America, whose 
legislation on this point varies a great deal from one state to the other. In France after a 
long abolitionist campaign, the April 13, 1946, lawordered brothels to be closed and 
the fight against procuremat to be reinforced: "Considering that the existence of these 
brothels is incompatible with the essential principles of human dignity and the role 
granted to woman in modern society ..." Prostitution nevertheless continues to be 
practiced. Negative and hypocritical measures are obviously not the way the situation 
can be modified. 

1 5. Cf. Philip Wylie, Generation of Vipers. 






History has shown that men have always held all the concrete powers; 
from patriarchy's earliest times they have deemed it useful to keep 
woman in a state of dependence; their codes were set up against her; 
she was thus concretely established as the Other. This condition 
served males' economic interests; but it also suited their ontological 
and moral ambitions. Once the subject attempts to assert himself, the 
Other, who limits and denies him, is nonetheless necessary for him: 
he attains himself only through the reality that he is not. That is why 
man's life is never plenitude and rest, it is lack and movement, it is 
combat. Facing himself, man encounters Nature; he has a hold on it, 
he tries to appropriate it for himself. But it cannot satisfy him. Either it 
realizes itself as a purely abstract opposition — it is an obstacle and 
remains foreign — or it passively submits to man's desire and allows 
itself to be assimilated by him; he possesses it only in consuming it, 
that is, in destroying it. In both cases, he remains alone; he is alone 
when touching a stone, alone when digesting a piece of fruit. The 
other is present only if the other is himself present to himself: that is, 
true alterity is a consciousness separated from my own and identical 
to it. It is the existence of other men that wrests each man from his 
immanence and enables him to accomplish the truth of his being, to 
accomplish himself as transcendence, as flight toward the object, as a 
project. But this foreign freedom, which confirms my freedom, also 
enters into conflict with it: this is the tragedy of the unhappy 
consciousness; each consciousness seeks to posit itself alone as 
sovereign subject. Each one tries to accomplish itself by reducing the 
other to slavery. But in work and fear the slave experiences himself as 
essential, and by a dialectical reversal the master appears the 
inessential one. The conflict can be overcome by the free recognition 
of each individual in the other, each one positing both itself and the 
other as object and as subject in a reciprocal movement. But 
friendship and generosity, which accomplish this recognition of 
freedoms concretely, are not easy virtues; they are undoubtedly man's 


highest accomplishment; this is where he is in his truth: but this truth 
is a struggle endlessly begun, endlessly abolished; it demands that 
man surpass himself at each instant. Put into other words, man attains 
an authentically moral attitude when he renounces being in order to 
assume his existence; through this conversion he also renounces all 
possession, because possession is a way of searching for being; but 
the conversion by which he attains true wisdom is never finished, it 
has to be made ceaselessly, it demands constant effort. So much so 
that, unable to accomplish himself in solitude, man is ceaselessly in 
jeopardy in his relations with his peers: his life is a difficult enterprise 
whose success is never assured. 

But he does not like difficulty; he is afraid of danger. He has 
contradictory aspirations to both life and rest, existence and being; he 
knows very well that "a restless spirit" is the ransom for his 
development, that his distance from the object is the ransom for his 
being present to himself; but he dreams of restfulness in restlessness 
and of an opaque plenitude that his consciousness would nevertheless 
still inhabit. This embodied dream is, precisely, woman; she is the 
perfect intermediary between nature that is foreign to man and the peer 
who is too identical to him. 1 She pits neither the hostile silence of 
nature nor the hard demand of a reciprocal recognition against him; by 
a unique privilege she is a consciousness, and yet it seems possible to 
possess her in the flesh. Thanks to her, there is a way to escape the 
inexorable dialectic of the master and the slave that springs from the 
reciprocity of freedoms. 

It has been pointed out that there were not at first free women 
whom the males then enslaved and that the sexual division has never 
founded a division into castes. Assimilating the woman to the slave is 
a mistake; among slaves there were women, but free women have 
always existed, that is, women invested with religious and social 
dignity: they accepted man's sovereignty, and he did not feel 
threatened by a revolt that could transform him in turn into an object. 
Woman thus emerged as the inessential who never returned to the 
essential, as the absolute Other, without reciprocity. All the creation 
myths express this conviction that is precious to the male, for 
example, the Genesis legend, which, through Christianity, has 
spanned Western civilization. Eve was not formed at the same time as 
man; she was not made either from a different substance or from the 


same clay that Adam was modeled from: she was drawn from the first 
male's flank. Even her birth was not autonomous; God did not 
spontaneously choose to create her for herself and to be directly 
worshipped in turn: he destined her for man; he gave her to Adam to 
save him from loneliness, her spouse is her origin and her finality; she 
is his complement in the inessential mode. Thus, she appears a 
privileged prey. She is nature raised to the transparency of 
consciousness; she is a naturally submissive consciousness. And 
therein lies the marvelous hope that man has often placed in woman: 
he hopes to accomplish himself as being through carnally possessing 
a being while making confirmed in his freedom by a docile freedom. 
No man would consent to being a woman, but all want there to be 
women. "Thank God for creating woman." "Nature is good because it 
gave men woman." In these and other similar phrases, man once more 
asserts arrogantly and naively that his presence in this world is an 
inevitable fact and a right, that of woman is a simple accident — but a 
fortunate one. Appearing as the Other, woman appears at the same 
time as a plenitude of being by opposition to the nothingness of 
existence that man experiences in itself; the Other, posited as object in 
the subject's eyes, is posited as in-itself, thus as being. Woman 
embodies positively the lack the existent carries in his heart, and man 
hopes to realize himself by finding himself through her. 

But she has not represented for him the only incarnation of the 
Other, and she has not always had the same importance throughout 
history. In various periods, she has been eclipsed by other idols. 
When the city or the state devours the citizen, he is no longer in any 
position to deal with his personal destiny. Dedicated to the state, the 
Spartan woman has a higher station than that of other Greek women. 
But she is not transfigured by any masculine dream. The cult of the 
chief, be it Napoleon, Mussolini, or Hitler, excludes any other. In 
military dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, woman is no longer a 
privileged object. It is understandable that woman is divinized in a 
country that is rich and where the citizens are uncertain about what 
meaning to give to their lives: this is what is happening in America. In 
contrast, socialist ideologies, which call for the assimilation of all 
human beings, reject the notion that any human category be object or 
idol, now and for the future: in the authentically democratic society 
that Marx heralded, there is no place for the Other. Few men, 


however, correspond exactly to the soldier or the militant that they 
have chosen to be; as long as these men remain individuals, woman 
retains a singular value in their eyes. I have seen letters written by 
German soldiers to French prostitutes in which, in spite of Nazism, 
the tradition of sentimentality proved to be naively alive. Communist 
writers like Aragon in France and Vittorini in Italy give a front-row 
place in their works to woman as lover and mother. Perhaps the myth 
of woman will be phased out one day: the more women assert 
themselves as human beings, the more the marvelous quality of Other 
dies in them. But today it still exists in the hearts of all men. 

Any myth implies a Subject who projects its hopes and fears of a 
transcendent heaven. Not positing themselves as Subject, women 
have not created the virile myth that would reflect their projects; they 
have neither religion nor poetry that belongs to them alone: they still 
dream through men's dreams. They worship the gods made by males. 
And males have shaped the great virile figures for their own 
exaltation: Hercules, Prometheus, Parsifal; in the destiny of these 
heroes, woman has merely a secondary role. Undoubtedly, there are 
stylized images of man as he is in his relations with woman: father, 
seducer, husband, the jealous one, the good son, the bad son; but men 
are the ones who have established them, and they have not attained the 
dignity of myth; they are barely more than cliches, while woman is 
exclusively defined in her relation to man. The asymmetry of the two 
categories, male and female, can be seen in the unilateral constitution 
of sexual myths. Woman is sometimes designated as "sex"; it is she 
who is the flesh, its delights and its dangers. That for woman it is man 
who is sexed and carnal is a truth that has never been proclaimed 
because there is no one to proclaim it. The representation of the world 
as the world itself is the work of men; they describe it from a point of 
view that is their own and that they confound with the absolute truth. 

It is always difficult to describe a myth; it does not lend itself to 
being grasped or defined; it haunts consciousnesses without ever 
being posited opposite them as a fixed object. The object fluctuates so 
much and is so contradictory that its unity is not at first discerned: 
Delilah and Judith, Aspasia and Lucretia, Pandora and Athena, 
woman is both Eve and the Virgin Mary. She is an idol, a servant, 
source of life, power of darkness; she is the elementary silence of 
truth, she is artifice, gossip, and lies; she is the medicine woman and 


witch; she is man's prey; she is his downfall, she is everything he is 
not and wants to have, his negation and his raison d'etre. 

"To be a woman," says Kierkegaard, "is something so strange, so 
confused, and so complicated that no one predicate can express it, and 
the multiple predicates that might be used contradict each other in such 
a way that only a woman could put up with it." 2 This comes from 
being considered not positively, as she is for herself, but negatively, 
such as she appears to man. Because if there are other Others than the 
woman, she is still always defined as Other. And her ambiguity is that 
of the very idea of Other: it is that of the human condition as defined 
in its relation with the Other. It has already been said that the Other is 
Evil; but as it is necessary for the Good, it reverts to the Good; 
through the Other, I accede to the Whole, but it separates me from the 
Whole; it is the door to infinity and the measure of my finitude. And 
this is why woman embodies no set concept; through her the passage 
from hope to failure, hatred to love, good to bad, bad to good takes 
place ceaselessly. However she is considered, it is this ambivalence 
that is the most striking. 

Man seeks the Other in woman as Nature and as his peer. But Nature 
inspires ambivalent feelings in man, as has been seen. He exploits it, 
but it crushes him; he is born from and he dies in it; it is the source of 
his being and the kingdom he bends to his will; it is a material 
envelope in which the soul is held prisoner, and it is the supreme 
reality; it is contingency and Idea, finitude and totality; it is that which 
opposes Spirit and himself. Both ally and enemy, it appears as the 
dark chaos from which life springs forth, as this very life, and as the 
beyond it reaches for: woman embodies nature as Mother, Spouse, 
and Idea; these figures are sometimes confounded and sometimes in 
opposition, and each has a double face. 

Man sinks his roots in Nature; he was engendered, like animals and 
plants; he is well aware that he exists only inasmuch as he lives. But 
since the coming of patriarchy, life in man's eyes has taken on a dual 
aspect: it is consciousness, will, transcendence, it is intellect; and it is 
matter, passivity, immanence, it is flesh. Aeschylus, Aristotle, and 
Hippocrates proclaimed that on earth as on Mount Olympus it is the 
male principle that is the true creator: form, number, and movement 


come from him; Demeter makes corn multiply, but the origin of corn 
and its truth are in Zeus; woman's fertility is considered merely a 
passive virtue. She is earth and man seed; she is water, and he is fire. 
Creation has often been imagined as a marriage of fire and water; hot 
humidity gives birth to living beings; the Sun is the spouse of the Sea; 
Sun and Fire are male divinities; and the Sea is one of the most 
universally widespread maternal symbols. Inert, water submits to the 
flamboyant rays that fertilize it. Likewise, the still earth, furrowed by 
the laborer's toil, receives the seeds in its rows. But its role is 
necessary: it is the soil that nourishes the seed, shelters it, and 
provides its substance. Man thus continued to worship fertility 
goddesses, even once the Great Mother was dethroned; 3 he owes his 
harvests, herds, and prosperity to Cybele. He owes her his very life. 
He exalts water and fire equally. "Glory to the sea! Glory to its waves 
encircled by sacred fire! Glory to the wave! Glory to the fire! Glory to 
the strange adventure," wrote Goethe in Faust, Part Two. He 
venerated earth: "the Matron Clay," as Blake called it. An Indian 
prophet advised his disciples not to dig up the earth because "it is a 
sin to hurt or cut, to tear our common mother in agricultural 
works . . . Do I take a knife to drive into my mother's breast?. . . Do I 
mutilate her flesh so as to reach her bones?. . . How could I dare to cut 
my mother's hair?" In central India the Baidya also thought that it was 
a sin to "rip the breast of their earth mother with the plow." Inversely, 
Aeschylus says of Oedipus that he "dared to sow the sacred furrow 
where he was formed." Sophocles spoke of "paternal furrows" and of 
the "laborer, master of a remote field that he visited only once during 
the sowing." The beloved in an Egyptian song declares: "I am the 
earth!" In Islamic texts, woman is called "field ... grapevine." In one 
of his hymns, Saint Francis of Assisi speaks of "our sister, the earth, 
our mother, who preserves and cares for us, who produces the most 
varied fruits with many-colored flowers and with grass." Michelet, 
taking mud baths in Acqui, exclaims: "Dear common mother! We are 
one. I come from you, I return to you!" And there are even periods of 
vitalistic romanticism that affirm the triumph of Life over Spirit: so the 
earth's and woman's magic fertility appear to be even more marvelous 
than the male's concerted works; so the man dreams of once again 
losing himself in maternal darkness to find the true sources of his 
being. The mother is the root driven into the depths of the cosmos that 


taps its vital juices; she is the fountain from which springs forth sweet 
water that is also mother's milk, a warm spring, a mud formed of 
earth and water, rich in regenerating forces. 4 

But man's revolt against his carnal condition is more general; he 
considers himself a fallen god: his curse is to have fallen from a 
luminous and orderly heaven into the chaotic obscurity of the 
mother's womb. He desires to see himself in this fire, this active and 
pure breath, and it is woman who imprisons him in the mud of the 
earth. He would like himself to be as necessary as pure Idea, as One, 
All, absolute Spirit; and he finds himself enclosed in a limited body, 
in a place and time he did not choose, to which he was not called, 
useless, awkward, absurd. His very being is carnal contingence to 
which he is subjected in his isolation, in his unjustifiable 
gratuitousness. It also dooms him to death. This quivering gelatin that 
forms in the womb (the womb, secret and sealed like a tomb) is too 
reminiscent of the soft viscosity of carrion for him not to turn away 
from it with a shudder. Wherever life is in the process of being made 
— germination and fermentation — it provokes disgust because it is 
being made only when it is being unmade; the viscous glandular 
embryo opens the cycle that ends in the rotting of death. Horrified by 
death's gratuitousness, man is horrified at having been engendered; he 
would like to rescind his animal attachments; because of his birth, 
murderous Nature has a grip on him. For the primitives, childbirth is 
surrounded by strict taboos; in particular, the placenta must be 
carefully burned or thrown into the sea, because whoever might get 
hold of it would hold the newborn's fate in his hands; this envelope in 
which the fetus is formed is the sign of its dependence; in annihilating 
it, the individual is able to detach himself from the living magma and 
to realize himself as an autonomous being. The stain of childbirth falls 
back on the mother. Leviticus and all the ancient codes impose 
purification rites on the new mother; and often in the countryside the 
postpartum ceremony maintains that tradition. Everyone knows that 
young boys and girls and men feel a spontaneous embarrassment, one 
often camouflaged by sneering, at seeing a pregnant woman's 
stomach or the swollen breasts of the wet nurse. In Dupuytren's 
museums, the curious contemplate the wax embryos and the 
preserved fetuses with the morbid interest they would show in a 
defiled grave. Notwithstanding all the respect that society surrounds it 


with, the function of gestation inspires spontaneous repulsion. And 
while the little boy in early childhood remains sensually attached to 
the mother's flesh, when he grows up, when he is socialized and 
becomes aware of his individual existence, this flesh frightens him; he 
wants to ignore it and to see his mother as institution only; if he wants 
to think of her as pure and chaste, it is less from amorous jealousy 
than from the refusal to acknowledge her as a body. An adolescent 
boy becomes embarrassed, blushes if he meets his mother, sisters, or 
women in his family when he is out with his friends: their presence 
recalls the regions of immanence from which he wants to escape; she 
reveals the roots that he wants to pull himself away from. The boy's 
irritation when his mother kisses and caresses him has the same 
significance; he gives up his family, mother, and mother's breast. He 
would like to have emerged, like Athena, into the adult world, armed 
from head to toe, invulnerable. 5 Being conceived and born is the curse 
weighing on his destiny, the blemish on his being. And it is the 
warning of his death. The cult of germination has always been 
associated with the cult of the dead. Mother Earth engulfs the bones 
of its children within it. Women — the Parcae and Moirai — weave 
human destiny; but they also cut the threads. In most folk 
representations, Death is woman, and women mourn the dead because 
death is their work. 6 

Thus, Mother Earth has a face of darkness: she is chaos, where 
everything comes from and must return to one day; she is 
Nothingness. The many aspects of the world that the day uncovers 
commingle in the night: night of spirit locked up in the generality and 
opacity of matter, night of sleep and nothing. At the heart of the sea, it 
is night: woman is the Mare tenebrarum dreaded by ancient 
navigators; it is night in the bowels of the earth. Man is threatened 
with being engulfed in this night, the reverse of fertility, and it 
horrifies him. He aspires to the sky, to light, to sunny heights, to the 
pure and crystal clear cold of blue; and underfoot is a moist, hot, and 
dark gulf ready to swallow him; many legends have the hero falling 
and forever lost in maternal darkness: a cave, an abyss, hell. 

But once again ambivalence is at work here: while germination is 
always associated with death, death is also associated with fertility. 
Detested death is like a new birth, and so it is blessed. The dead hero 
like Osiris is resurrected every springtime, and he is regenerated by a 


new birth. Man's supreme hope, says Jung, "is that the dark waters of 
death become the waters of life, that death and its cold embrace are the 
mother's lap, just as the sea, while engulfing the sun, re-births in the 
depths." 7 The theme of the burial of the sun god within the sea and its 
dazzling reemergence is common to many mythologies. And man 
wants to live, but he also hopes for rest, sleep, for nothingness. He 
does not wish for immortality for himself, and thus he can learn to 
love death. "Inorganic matter is the mother's breast," Nietzsche wrote. 
"Being delivered from life means becoming real again, completing 
oneself. Anyone who understands that would consider returning to 
unfeeling dust as a holiday." Chaucer puts this prayer into the mouth 
of an old man who cannot die: 

Thus restless I my wretched way must make 
And on the ground, which is my mother 's gate, 
I knock with my staff early, aye, and late 
And cry: "O my dear mother, let me in! " 

Man wants to assert his individual existence and proudly rest on 
his "essential difference," but he also wants to break the barriers of 
the self and commingle with water, earth, night, Nothingness, with the 
Whole. Woman who condemns man to finitude also enables him to 
surpass his own limits: that is where the equivocal magic surrounding 
her comes from. 

In all civilizations and still today, she inspires horror in man: the 
horror of his own carnal contingence that he projects on her. The girl 
who has not yet gone through puberty does not pose a threat; she is 
not the object of any taboo and has no sacred characteristics. In many 
primitive societies her sex even seems innocent: erotic games between 
boys and girls are allowed in childhood. Woman becomes impure the 
day she might be able to procreate. In primitive societies the strict 
taboos concerning girls on the day of their first period have often been 
described; even in Egypt, where the woman is treated with particular 
respect, she remains confined during her whole menstrual period. 8 
She is often put on a rooftop or relegated to a shack on the outskirts 
of the town; she can be neither seen nor touched: what's more, she 
must not even touch herself with her own hand; for peoples that 
practice daily flea removal, she is given a stick with which she is able 


to scratch herself; she must not touch food with her fingers; 
sometimes she is strictly forbidden to eat; in other cases, her mother 
and sister are permitted to feed her with an instrument; but all objects 
that come in contact with her during this period must be burned. After 
this first test, the menstrual taboos are a little less strict, but they 
remain harsh. In particular, in Leviticus: "And if a woman have an 
issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven 
days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even. 
And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: 
every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean. And 
whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself 
in water, and be unclean until the even." This text is perfectly 
symmetrical with one concerning gonorrhea-provoked impurity in 
man. And the purifying sacrifice is identical in the two cases. Seven 
days after she has been purified of her flow, two turtledoves or two 
young pigeons have to be brought to the sacrificer, who offers them 
to the Eternal. Even in matriarchal societies, the virtues connected to 
menstruation are ambivalent. On the one hand, it brings social 
activities to a halt, destroys the vital force, withers flowers, causes 
fruit to fall; but it also has beneficial effects: menses are used in love 
philters, in remedies, and in particular in healing cuts and bruises. Still 
today, when some Indians go off to fight spectral monsters haunting 
their rivers, they place a fiber wad filled with menstrual blood on the 
bow of their boat: its emanations are harmful to their supernatural 
enemies. In some Greek cities, young girls pay homage to the temple 
of Astarte by wearing linens stained by their first menstrual blood. 
But since patriarchy, only harmful powers have been attributed to the 
bizarre liquor flowing from the feminine sex. Pliny in his Natural 
History says: "The menstruating woman spoils harvests, devastates 
gardens, kills seeds, makes fruit fall, kills bees; if she touches the 
wine, it turns to vinegar; milk sours ..." 

An old English poet expresses the same thought: 

Oh! Menstruating woman, thou 'rt a fiend 

From whom all nature should be closely screened! 

These beliefs have been vigorously perpetuated right up to today. 
In 1878, a member of the British Medical Association wrote in the 


British MedicalJournal: "It is an indisputable fact that meat goes bad 
when touched by menstruating women." He said that he personally 
knew of two cases of hams spoiling in such circumstances. In the 
refineries of the North at the beginning of this century, women were 
prohibited by law from going into the factory when they were 
afflicted by what the Anglo-Saxons call the "curse" because the sugar 
turned black. And in Saigon, women are not employed in opium 
factories: because of their periods, the opium goes bad and becomes 
bitter. These beliefs survive in many areas of the French countryside. 
Any cook knows how impossible it is to make mayonnaise if she is 
indisposed or simply in the presence of another woman who is 
indisposed. In Anjou, recently, an old gardener who had stocked that 
year's cider harvest in the cellar wrote to the master of the house: 
"Don't let the young women of the household and their female guests 
go through the cellar on certain days of the month: they would prevent 
the cider from fermenting." When the cook heard about this letter, she 
shrugged her shoulders. "That never prevented cider from 
fermenting," she said, "it is only bad for bacon fat: it cannot be salted 
in the presence of an indisposed woman; it would rot." 9 

Putting this repulsion in the same category as that provoked by 
blood is most inadequate: more imbued with the mysterious mana that 
is both life and death than anything else, blood, of course, is in itself a 
sacred element. But menstrual blood's baleful powers are more 
particular. Menstrual blood embodies the essence of femininity, which 
is why its flow endangers woman herself, whose mana is thus 
materialized. During the Chaga's initiation rites, girls are urged to 
carefully conceal their menstrual blood. "Do not show it to your 
mother, for she would die! Do not show it to your age-mates, for 
there may be a wicked one among them, who will take away the cloth 
with which you have cleaned yourself, and you will be barren in your 
marriage. Do not show it to a bad woman, who will take the cloth to 
place it in the top of her hut . . . with the result that you cannot bear 
children. Do not throw the cloth on the path or in the bush. A wicked 
person might do evil things with it. Bury it in the ground. Protect the 
blood from the gaze of your father, brothers and sisters. It is a sin to 
let them see it." 10 

For the Aleuts, if the father sees his daughter during her first 
menstruation, she could go blind or deaf. It is thought that during this 


period woman is possessed by a spirit and invested with a dangerous 
power. Some primitives believe that the flow is provoked by 
snakebite, as woman has suspicious affinities with snakes and lizards; 
it is supposed to be similar to crawling animals' venom. Leviticus 
compares it to gonorrhea; the bleeding feminine sex is not only a 
wound but a suspicious sore. And Vigny associates the notion of 
soiling with illness: "Woman, sick child, and impure twelve times." 
The result of interior alchemic troubles, the periodic hemorrhage 
woman suffers from is bizarrely aligned with the moon's cycle: the 
moon also has dangerous whims. 11 Woman is part of the formidable 
workings that order the course of planets and the sun; she is prey to 
the cosmic forces that determine the destiny of stars and tides, while 
men are subjected to their worrisome radiation. But it is especially 
striking that menstrual blood's effects are linked to the ideas of cream 
going sour, mayonnaise that does not take, fermentation, and 
decomposition; it is also claimed that it is apt to cause fragile objects 
to break; to spring violin and harp strings; but above all it influences 
organic substances that are midway between matter and life; this is 
less because it is blood than because it emanates from genital organs; 
even without knowing its exact function, people understood it to be 
linked to the germination of life: ignorant of the existence of the 
ovary, the ancients saw in menstruation the complement of the sperm. 
In fact, it is not this blood that makes woman impure, but rather, this 
blood is a manifestation of her impurity; it appears when the woman 
can be fertile; when it disappears, she becomes sterile again; it pours 
forth from this womb where the fetus is made. The horror of feminine 
fertility that man experiences is expressed through it. 

The strictest taboo of all concerning woman in her impure state is 
the prohibition of sexual intercourse with her. Leviticus condemns 
man to seven days of impurity if he transgresses this rule. The Laws 
of Manu are even harsher: "The wisdom, energy, strength, and vitality 
of a man coming near a woman stained by menstrual excretions perish 
definitively." Priests ordered fifty days of penance for men who had 
sexual relations during menstruation. Since the feminine principle is 
then considered as reaching its highest power, it is feared that it would 
triumph over the male principle in intimate contact. Less specifically, 
man shies away from finding the mother's feared essence in the 
woman he possesses; he works at dissociating these two aspects of 


femininity: that explains why incest is prohibited by exogamy or more 
modern forms and is a universal law; that explains why man distances 
himself from woman sexually when she is particularly destined for 
her reproductive role: during her period, when she is pregnant, or 
when she is nursing. Not only does the Oedipus complex — whose 
description, incidentally, has to be revised — not contradict this 
attitude: on the contrary, it even implies it. Man guards himself against 
woman to the extent that she is the confused source of the world and 
disorder become organic. 

However, this representation of woman also allows the society that 
has been separated from the cosmos and the gods to remain in 
communication with them. She still assures the fertility of the fields 
for the bedouins and the Iroquois; in ancient Greece, she heard 
subterranean voices; she understood the language of the wind and the 
trees: she was the Pythia, Sibyl, and prophetess. The dead and the 
gods spoke through her mouth. Still today, she has these powers of 
divination: she is medium, palmist, card reader, clairvoyant, inspired; 
she hears voices and has visions. When men feel the need to delve 
into vegetable and animal life — like Antaeus, who touched earth to 
recoup his strength — they call upon woman. Throughout the Greek 
and Roman rationalist civilizations, chthonian cults subsisted. They 
could usually be found on the periphery of official religious life; they 
even ended up, as in Eleusis, taking the form of mysteries: they had 
the opposite meaning of sun cults, where man asserted his will for 
separation and spirituality; but they complemented them; man sought 
to overcome his solitude by ecstasy: that is the goal of mysteries, 
orgies, and bacchanals. In the world reconquered by males, the male 
god Dionysus usurped Ishtar's and Astarte's magic and wild virtues; 
but it was women who went wild over his image: the maenads, 
thyades, and bacchantes led men to religious drunkenness and sacred 
madness. The role of sacred prostitution is similar: both to unleash 
and to channel the powers of fertility. Even today, popular holidays 
are exemplified by outbreaks of eroticism; woman is not just an object 
of pleasure but a means of reaching this hubris in which the individual 
surpasses himself. "What a being possesses in the deepest part of 
himself, what is lost and tragic, the 'blinding wonder' can no longer 
be found anywhere but on a bed," wrote Georges Bataille. 

In sexual release, man in his lover's embrace seeks to lose himself 


in the infinite mystery of the flesh. But it has already been seen that 
his normal sexuality, on the contrary, dissociates Mother from Wife. 
He finds the mysterious alchemies of life repugnant, while his own 
life is nourished and enchanted by the tasty fruits of the earth; he 
desires to appropriate them for himself; he covets Venus freshly 
emerging from the waters. Woman first discovers herself in patriarchy 
as wife since the supreme creator is male. Before being the mother of 
humankind, Eve is Adam's companion; she was given to man for him 
to possess and fertilize as he possesses and fertilizes the soil; and 
through her, he makes his kingdom out of all nature. Man does not 
merely seek in the sexual act subjective and ephemeral pleasure. He 
wants to conquer, take, and possess; to have a woman is to conquer 
her; he penetrates her as the plowshare in the furrows; he makes her 
his as he makes his the earth he is working: he plows, he plants, he 
sows: these images are as old as writing; from antiquity to today a 
thousand examples can be mentioned. "Woman is like the field and 
man like the seeds," say the Laws of Manu. In an Andre Masson 
drawing there is a man, shovel in hand, tilling the garden of a 
feminine sex. 12 Woman is her husband's prey, his property. 

Man's hesitation between fear and desire, between the terror of 
being possessed by uncontrollable forces and the will to overcome 
them, is grippingly reflected in the virginity myths. Dreaded or 
desired or even demanded by the male, virginity is the highest form of 
the feminine mystery; this aspect is simultaneously the most troubling 
and the most fascinating. Depending on whether man feels crushed by 
the powers encircling him or arrogantly believes he is able to make 
them his, he refuses or demands that his wife be delivered to him as a 
virgin. In the most primitive societies, where woman's power is 
exalted, it is fear that dominates; woman has to be deflowered the 
night before the wedding. Marco Polo asserted that for the Tibetans, 
"none of them wanted to take a virgin girl as wife." A rational 
explanation has sometimes been given for this refusal: man does not 
want a wife who has not yet aroused masculine desires. Al-Bakri, the 
Arab geographer, speaking of the Slavic peoples, notes that "if a man 
gets married and finds that his wife is a virgin, he says: 'If you were 
worth something, men would have loved you and one of them would 
have taken your virginity.' " He then chases her out and repudiates 
her. It is also claimed that some primitives refuse to marry a woman 


unless she has already given birth, thus proving her fertility. But the 
real reasons for the very widespread deflowering customs are 
mystical. Certain peoples imagine the presence of a serpent in the 
vagina that would bite the spouse during the breaking of the hymen; 
terrifying virtues are given to virginal blood, linked to menstrual 
blood, and capable of ruining the male's vigor. These images express 
the idea that the feminine principle is so powerful and threatening 
because it is intact. 13 Sometimes the deflowering issue is not raised; 
for example, Malinowski describes an indigenous population in 
which, because sexual games are allowed from childhood on, girls are 
never virgins. Sometimes, the mother, older sister, or some other 
matron systematically deflowers the girl and throughout her childhood 
widens the vaginal opening. Deflowering can also be carried out by 
women during puberty using a stick, a bone, or a stone, and this is not 
considered a surgical operation. In other tribes, the girl at puberty is 
subjected to savage initiation rites: men drag her out of the village and 
deflower her with instruments or by raping her. Giving over virgins 
to passersby is one of the most common rites; either these strangers 
are not thought to be sensitive to this mana dangerous only for the 
tribes' males, or it does not matter what evils befall them. Even more 
often, the priest, medicine man, boss, or head of the tribe deflowers 
the fiancee the night before the wedding; on the Malabar Coast, the 
Brahmans have to carry out this act, apparently without joy, for which 
they demand high wages. All holy objects are known to be dangerous 
for the outsider, but consecrated individuals can handle them without 
risk; that explains why priests and chiefs are able to tame the malefic 
forces against which the spouse has to protect himself. In Rome all 
that was left of these customs was a symbolic ceremony: the fiancee 
was seated on a stone Priapus phallus, with the double aim of 
increasing her fertility and absorbing the overpowerful and therefore 
harmful fluids within her. The husband defends himself in yet another 
way: he himself deflowers the virgin but during ceremonies that 
render him invulnerable at this critical juncture; for example, he does it 
in front of the whole village with a stick or bone. In Samoa, he uses 
his finger covered in a white cloth and distributes bloodstained shreds 
to the spectators. There is also the case of the man allowed to 
deflower his wife normally but he has to wait three days to ejaculate 
in her so that the generating seed is not soiled by hymen blood. 


In a classic reversal in the area of sacred things, virginal blood in 
less primitive societies is a propitious symbol. There are still villages 
in France where the bloody sheet is displayed to parents and friends 
the morning after the wedding. In the patriarchal regime, man became 
woman's master; and the same characteristics that are frightening in 
animals or untamed elements become precious qualities for the owner 
who knows how to subdue them. Man took the ardor of the wild 
horse and the violence of lightning and waterfalls as the instruments 
of his prosperity. Therefore, he wants to annex woman to him with all 
her riches intact. The order of virtue imposed on the girl certainly 
obeys rational motives: like chastity for the wife, the fiancee's 
innocence is necessary to protect the father from incurring any risk of 
bequeathing his goods to a foreign child. But woman's virginity is 
demanded more imperiously when man considers the wife as his 
personal property. First of all, the idea of possession is always 
impossible to realize positively; the truth is that one never has 
anything or anyone; one attempts to accomplish it in a negative way; 
the surest way to assert that a good is mine is to prevent another from 
using it. And then nothing seems as desirable to man as what has 
never belonged to any other human: thus conquest is a unique and 
absolute event. Virgin land has always fascinated explorers; alpinists 
kill themselves every year attempting to assault an untouched 
mountain or even trying to open up a new trail; and the curious risk 
their lives to descend underground to the bottom of unprobed caves. 
An object that men have already mastered has become a tool; cut off 
from its natural bonds, it loses its deepest attributes; there is more 
promise in the wild water of torrents than in that of public fountains. 
A virgin body has the freshness of secret springs, the morning bloom 
of a closed corolla, the orient of the pearl the sun has never yet 
caressed. Cave, temple, sanctuary, or secret garden: like the child, man 
is fascinated by these shadowy and closed places never yet touched 
by animating consciousness, waiting to be lent a soul; it seems to him 
that he in fact created what he is the only one to grasp and penetrate. 
Moreover, every desire pursues the aim of consuming the desired 
object, entailing its destruction. By breaking the hymen, man 
possesses the feminine body more intimately than by a penetration 
that leaves it intact; in this irreversible operation, he unequivocally 
makes it a passive object, asserting his hold on it. This exactly 


expresses the meaning in the legend of the knight who hacks his way 
through thorny bushes to pick a rose never before inhaled; not only 
does he uncover it, but he breaks its stem, thereby conquering it. The 
image is so clear that in popular language, "taking a woman's flower" 
means destroying her virginity, giving the origin of the word 

But virginity only has this sexual attraction when allied with youth; 
otherwise, its mystery reverts to disquiet. Many men today are 
sexually repulsed by older virgins; psychological reasons alone do not 
explain why "old maids" are regarded as bitter and mean matrons. The 
curse is in their very flesh, this flesh that is object for no subject, that 
no desire has made desirable, that has bloomed and wilted without 
finding a place in the world of men; turned away from her destination, 
the old maid becomes an eccentric object, as troubling as the 
incommunicable thinking of a madman. Of a forty-year-old, still 
beautiful, woman presumed to be a virgin, I heard a man say with 
great vulgarity: "It's full of cobwebs in there." It is true that deserted 
and unused cellars and attics are full of unsavory mystery; they fill up 
with ghosts; abandoned by humanity, houses become the dwellings of 
spirits. If feminine virginity has not been consecrated to a god, it is 
easily then thought to imply marriage with the devil. Virgins that men 
have not subjugated, old women who have escaped their power, are 
more easily looked upon as witches than other women; as woman's 
destiny is to be doomed to another, if she does not submit to a man's 
yoke, she is available for the devil's. 

Exorcised by deflowering rites or on the contrary purified by her 
virginity, the wife could thus be desirable prey. Taking her gives the 
lover all the riches of life he desires to possess. She is all the fauna, all 
the earthly flora: gazelle, doe, lilies and roses, downy peaches, 
fragrant raspberries; she is precious stones, mother-of-pearl, agate, 
pearls, silk, the blue of the sky, the freshness of springs, air, flame, 
earth, and water. All the poets of East and West have metamorphosed 
woman's body into flowers, fruits, and birds. Here again, throughout 
antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the modern period, it would be 
necessary to quote a thick anthology. The Song of Songs is well- 
known, in which the male loved one says to the female loved one: 

Thou hast doves ' eyes ... 


thy hair is as a flock of goats ... 

Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn ... 
thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate ... 
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins ... 
Honey and milk are under thy tongue. 

In Arcanum 1 7, Andre Breton took up this eternal song: "Melusina 
at the instant of her second scream: she sprang up off her globeless 
haunches, her belly is the whole August harvest, her torso bursts into 
fireworks from her arched back, modeled on a swallow's two wings, 
her breasts are two ermines caught in their own scream, blinding 
because they are lit by scorching coals of their howling mouth. And 
her arms are the soul of streams that sing and float perfumes." 

Man finds shining stars and the moody moon, sunlight, and the 
darkness of caves on woman; wildflowers from hedgerows and the 
garden's proud rose are also woman. Nymphs, dryads, mermaids, 
water sprites, and fairies haunt the countryside, the woods, lakes, 
seas, and moors. This animism is profoundly anchored in men. For 
the sailor, the sea is a dangerous woman, perfidious and difficult to 
conquer but that he cherishes by dint of taming it. Proud, rebellious, 
virginal, and wicked, the mountain is woman for the mountain climber 
who wants to take it, even at risk of life. It is often said that these 
comparisons manifest sexual sublimation; rather, they express an 
affinity between woman and the elements as primal as sexuality itself. 
Man expects more from possessing woman than the satisfaction of an 
instinct; she is the special object through which he subjugates Nature. 
Other objects can also play this role. Sometimes it is on young boys' 
bodies that man seeks the sand of beaches, the velvet of nights, the 
fragrance of honeysuckle. But sexual penetration is not the only way 
to realize this carnal appropriation of the earth. In his novel To a God 
Unknown, Steinbeck shows a man who chooses a mossy rock as 
mediator between him and nature; in The Cat, Colette describes a 
young husband who settles his love on his favorite female cat because 
this gentle wild animal enables him to have a grasp on the sensual 
universe that his woman companion cannot give. The Other can be 
embodied in the sea and the mountain just as well as in the woman; 
they provide man with the same passive and unexpected resistance 
that allows him to accomplish himself; they are a refusal to conquer, a 


prey to possess. If the sea and the mountain are woman, it is because 
woman is also the sea and the mountain for the lover. 14 

But not just any woman can play the role of mediator between man 
and the world; man is not satisfied with finding sexual organs 
complementary to his own in his partner. She must embody the 
wondrous blossoming of life while concealing its mysterious 
disturbances at the same time. First of all, she has to have youth and 
health, for man cannot be enraptured in his embrace of a living thing 
unless he forgets that all life is inhabited by death. And he desires still 
more: that his beloved be beautiful. The ideal of feminine beauty is 
variable; but some requirements remain constant; one of them is that 
since woman is destined to be possessed, her body has to provide the 
inert and passive qualities of an object. Virile beauty is the body's 
adaptation to active functions such as strength, agility, flexibility, and 
the manifestation of a transcendence animating a flesh that must never 
collapse into itself. The only symmetry to be found in the feminine 
ideal is in Sparta, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, societies that 
destined woman for the state and not for the individual and that 
considered her exclusively as mother, with no place for eroticism. But 
when woman is delivered to the male as his property, he claims that 
her flesh be presented in its pure facticity. Her body is grasped not as 
the emanation of a subjectivity but as a thing weighted in its 
immanence; this body must not radiate to the rest of the world, it must 
not promise anything but itself: its desire has to be stopped. The most 
naive form of this requirement is the Hottentot ideal of the 
steatopygous Venus, as the buttocks are the part of the body with the 
fewest nerve endings, where the flesh appears as a given without 
purpose. The taste of people from the East for fleshy women is 
similar; they love the absurd luxury of this fatty proliferation that is 
not enlivened by any project, that has no other meaning than to be 
there. 15 Even in civilizations of a more subtle sensibility, where 
notions of form and harmony come into play, breasts and buttocks 
were prized objects because of the gratuitousness and contingency of 
their development. Customs and fashions were often applied to cut the 
feminine body from its transcendence: the Chinese woman with 
bound feet could barely walk, the Hollywood star's painted nails 
deprived her of her hands; high heels, corsets, hoops, farthingales, 
and crinolines were meant less to accentuate the woman's body's 


curves than to increase the body's powerlessness. Weighted down by 
fat or on the contrary so diaphanous that any effort is forbidden to it, 
paralyzed by uncomfortable clothes and rites of propriety, the body 
thus appeared to man as his thing. Makeup and jewels were also used 
for this petrification of the body and face. The function of dress and 
ornaments is highly complex; for some primitives, it had a sacred 
character; but its most usual role was to complete woman's 
metamorphosis into an idol. An equivocal idol: man wanted her erotic, 
for her beauty to be part of that of flowers and fruits; but she also had 
to be smooth, hard, eternal like a stone. The role of dress is both to 
link the body more closely to and to wrest it away from nature, to give 
a necessarily set artifice to palpitating life. Woman was turned into 
plant, panther, diamond, or mother-of-pearl by mingling flowers, furs, 
precious stones, shells, and feathers on her body; she perfumed 
herself so as to smell of roses and lilies: but feathers, silk, pearls, and 
perfumes also worked to hide the animal rawness from its flesh and 
odor. She painted her mouth and her cheeks to acquire a mask's 
immobile solidity; her gaze was imprisoned in the thickness of kohl 
and mascara, it was no longer anything but her eyes' shimmering 
ornamentation; braided, curled, or sculpted, her hair lost its 
troublesome vegetal mystery. In the embellished woman, Nature was 
present but captive, shaped by a human will in accordance with man's 
desire. Woman was even more desirable when nature was shown off 
to full advantage and more rigorously subjugated: the sophisticated 
woman has always been the ideal erotic object. And the taste for a 
more natural beauty is often a specious form of sophistication. Remy 
de Gourmont wanted women's hair to be loose, free as the streams 
and prairie grass: but it is on Veronica Lake's hair that the waves of 
water and wheat could be caressed, not on a mop of hair totally left to 
nature. The younger and healthier a woman is and the more her new 
and glossy body seems destined for eternal freshness, the less useful 
is artifice; but the carnal weakness of this prey that man takes and its 
ominous deterioration always have to be hidden from him. It is also 
because he fears contingent destiny, because he dreams her immutable 
and necessary, that man looks for the idea's exactitude on woman's 
face, body, and legs. In primitive people, this idea is the perfection of 
the popular type: a thick-lipped race with a flat nose forged a thick- 
lipped Venus with a flat nose; later, the canons of a more complex 


aesthetics would be applied to women. But in any case, the more the 
traits and proportions of a woman seemed contrived, the more she 
delighted the heart of man because she seemed to escape the 
metamorphosis of natural things. The result is this strange paradox 
that by desiring to grasp nature, but transfigured, in woman, man 
destines her to artifice. She is not only physis but just as much anti- 
physis; and not only in the civilization of electric permanents, hair 
waxing, latex girdles, but also in the country of African lip-disk 
women, in China, and everywhere on earth. Swift denounced this 
mystification in his famous ode to Celia; he railed against the 
coquette's paraphernalia, pointing out with disgust her body's animal 
servitudes; he was doubly wrong to become indignant; because man 
wants woman at the same time to be animal and plant and that she 
hide behind a fabricated armature; he loves her emerging from the 
waves and from a high-fashion house, naked and dressed, naked 
beneath her clothes, exactly as he finds her in the human universe. 
The city dweller seeks animality in woman; but for the young peasant 
doing his military service, the brothel embodies the magic of the city. 
Woman is field and pasture but also Babylonia. 

However, here is the first lie, the first betrayal of woman: of life 
itself, which, even clothed in the most attractive forms, is still 
inhabited by the ferments of old age and death. The very use man 
makes of her destroys her most precious qualities; weighed down by 
childbirth, she loses her sexual attraction; even sterile, the passage of 
time is enough to alter her charms. Disabled, ugly, or old, woman 
repels. She is said to be withered, faded, like a plant. Man's 
decrepitude is obviously also frightful; but normal man does not 
experience other men as flesh; he has only an abstract solidarity with 
these autonomous and foreign bodies. It is on woman's body, this 
body meant for him, that man significantly feels the flesh's 
deterioration. It is through the male's hostile eyes that Villon's "once 
beautiful courtesan" contemplates her body's degradation. Old and 
ugly women not only are objects without assets but also provoke 
hatred mixed with fear. They embody the disturbing figure of Mother, 
while the charms of the Wife have faded away. 

But even the Wife was a dangerous prey. Demeter survives in 
Venus emerging from the waters, fresh foam, the blond harvest; 
appropriating woman for himself through the pleasure he derives 


from her, man awakens in her the suspicious powers of fertility; it is 
the same organ he penetrates that produces the child. This explains 
why man in all societies is protected against the feminine sex's threats 
by so many taboos. There is no reciprocity as woman has nothing to 
fear from the male; his sex is considered secular, profane. The phallus 
can be raised to the dignity of a god: there is no element of terror in 
worshipping it, and in daily life woman does not have to be defended 
against it mystically; it is simply propitious for her. It also has to be 
pointed out that in many matriarchies, sexuality is very free; but this is 
only during woman's childhood, in her early youth, when coitus is 
not linked to the idea of generation. Malinowski is surprised that 
young people who sleep together freely in the "house of the 
unmarried" show off their love lives so readily; the explanation is that 
an unmarried daughter is considered unable to bear a child and the 
sexual act is merely a quiet and ordinary pleasure. On the contrary, 
once married, her spouse cannot give her any public sign of affection, 
nor touch her, and any allusion to their intimate relations is 
sacrilegious; she then has to be part of the formidable essence of 
mother, and coitus becomes a sacred act. From then on it is 
surrounded by taboos and precautions. Intercourse is forbidden when 
cultivating the earth, sowing, and planting: in this case fertilizing 
forces necessary for the harvests' prosperity cannot be wasted in 
inter-individual relations; respect for powers associated with fertility 
enjoins such relations to be economized. But on most occasions, 
chastity protects the spouse's virility; it is demanded when man goes 
off fishing or hunting and above all when he is preparing for war; in 
the union with woman, the male principle weakens, and he has to 
avoid intercourse whenever he needs the totality of his forces. It has 
been wondered if the horror man feels for woman comes from that 
inspired by sexuality in general, or vice versa. We have seen that in 
Leviticus, in particular, wet dreams are considered a stain even though 
woman has nothing to do with them. And in our modern societies, 
masturbation is considered a danger and a sin; many children and 
young boys who indulge in it suffer terrible anxieties because of it. 
Society and parents above all make solitary pleasure a vice; but more 
than one young boy has been spontaneously frightened by his first 
ejaculations: blood or sperm, any flow of one's own substance seems 
worrying; it is one's life, one's mana, that is running out. However, 


even if subjectively man can go through erotic experiences where 
woman is not present, she is objectively involved in his sexuality: as 
Plato said in the myth of the androgynes, the male organism 
presupposes the woman's. He discovers woman in discovering his 
own sex, even if she is not given to him in flesh and blood, nor in 
image; and inversely, woman is fearsome inasmuch as she embodies 
sexuality. The immanent and transcendent aspects of living experience 
can never be separated: what I fear or desire is always an avatar of my 
own existence, but nothing comes to me except through what is not 
my self. The nonself is involved in wet dreams, in erection, and if not 
in the precise figure of woman, at least in Nature and Life: the 
individual feels possessed by a foreign magic. Likewise, his 
ambivalence toward women is seen in his attitude toward his own sex 
organ; he is proud, he laughs about it, he is embarrassed by it. The 
little boy defiantly compares his penis with his friends'; his first 
erection fills him with pride and frightens him at the same time. The 
adult man looks upon his sex organ as a symbol of transcendence and 
power; he is as proud of it as a muscle and at the same time as a 
magical grace: it is a freedom rich with the whole contingence of the 
given, a given freely desired; this is the contradictory aspect that 
enchants him; but he suspects the trap in it; this sex organ by which 
he claims to assert himself does not obey him; full of unassuaged 
desires, arising unexpectedly, sometimes relieving itself in dreams, it 
manifests a suspicious and capricious vitality. Man claims to make 
Spirit triumph over Life, activity over passivity; his consciousness 
keeps nature at a distance, his will shapes it, but in the figure of his 
sex organ he rediscovers life, nature, and passivity in himself. "The 
sexual parts are the real center of the will and the opposite pole is the 
brain," wrote Schopenhauer. What he called will is attachment to life, 
which is suffering and death, while the brain is thought that separates 
itself from life while representing it: sexual shame according to him is 
what we feel about our stupid carnal stubbornness. Even if the 
pessimism of his theories is rejected, he is right to see the expression 
of man's duality in the sex-brain opposition. As a subject he posits 
the world, and, remaining outside the universe he posits, he makes 
himself the lord of it; if he grasps himself as flesh, as sex, he is no 
longer autonomous consciousness, transparent freedom: he is 
engaged in the world, a limited and perishable object; and it is 


undoubtedly true that the generative act goes beyond the body's 
limits: but he constitutes them at the very same instant. The penis, 
father of generations, is symmetrical to the maternal womb; grown 
from a fattened germ in woman's womb, man is the bearer of germs 
himself, and by this seed that gives life, it is also his own life that is 
disavowed. "The birth of children is the death of parents," said Hegel. 
Ejaculation is the promise of death, it affirms the species over the 
individual; the existence of the sex organ and its activity negate the 
subject's proud singularity. The sex organ is a focus of scandal 
because of this contestation of spirit over life. Man exalts the phallus 
in that he grasps it as transcendence and activity, as a means of 
appropriation of the other; but he is ashamed when he sees in it only 
passive flesh through which he is the plaything of Life's obscure 
forces. This shame is often disguised as irony. The sex organ of 
others draws laughter easily; but because the erection looks like a 
planned movement and yet is undergone, it often looks ridiculous; and 
the simple mention of genital organs provokes glee. Malinowski says 
that for the wild people among whom he lived, just mentioning the 
word for these "shameful parts" made them laugh uncontrollably; 
many crude or saucy jokes are not much more than rudimentary puns 
on these words. For some primitive peoples, during the days devoted 
to weeding out gardens, women had the right to brutally rape any 
stranger that dared to come into the village; attacking him all together, 
they often left him half-dead: the tribesmen laughed at this exploit; by 
this rape, the victim was constituted as passive and dependent flesh; 
he was possessed by the women and through them by their husbands, 
while in normal coitus man wants to affirm himself as possessor. 

But this is where he will experience the ambiguity of his carnal 
condition most obviously. He takes pride in his sexuality only to the 
extent that it is a means of appropriation of the Other: and this dream 
of possession only ends in failure. In authentic possession, the other 
as such is abolished, it is consumed and destroyed: only the sultan of 
The Thousand and One Nights has the power to cut off his 
mistresses' heads when dawn withdraws them from his bed; woman 
survives man's embraces, and she is thus able to escape from him; as 
soon as he opens his arms, his prey once again becomes foreign to 
him; here she is new, intact, completely ready to be possessed by a 
new lover in just as ephemeral a way. One of the male's dreams is to 


"brand" woman so that she remains his forever; but even the most 
arrogant male knows only too well that he will never leave her 
anything more than memories, and the most passionate images are 
cold compared with real sensation. A whole literature has denounced 
this failure. It is made objective in the woman, who is called fickle and 
treacherous because her body destines her to man in general and not 
to a particular man. Her betrayal is even more perfidious: it is she who 
turns the lover into a prey. Only a body can touch another body; the 
male masters the desired flesh only by becoming flesh himself; Eve is 
given to Adam for him to accomplish his transcendence in her, and 
she draws him into the night of immanence; the mother forges the 
obscure wrapping for her son from which he now wants to escape, 
while the mistress encloses him in this opaque clay through the 
vertigo of pleasure. He wanted to possess: but here he is, possessed 
himself. Odor, damp, fatigue, boredom: a whole literature describes 
this dreary passion of a consciousness become flesh. Desire often 
contains an element of disgust and returns to disgust when it is 
assuaged. "Post coitum homo animal friste."* 

"The flesh is sad." And yet man has not even found definitive 
reassurance in his lover's arms. Soon his desire is reborn; and often it 
is the desire not only for woman in general but for this specific 
woman. She wields a singularly troubling power. Because in his own 
body man does not feel the sexual need except as a general one similar 
to hunger or thirst without a particular object, the bond that links him 
to this specific feminine body is forged by the Other. The link is 
mysterious like the foul and fertile womb of his roots, a sort of 
passive force: it is magic. The hackneyed vocabulary of serialized 
novels where the woman is described as an enchantress or a mermaid 
who fascinates man and bewitches him reflects the oldest and most 
universal of myths. Woman is devoted to magic. Magic, said Alain, is 
the spirit lurking in things; an action is magic when it emanates from a 
passivity instead of being produced by an agent; men have always 
considered woman precisely as the immanence of the given; if she 
produces harvests and children, it is not because she wills it; she is 
not subject, transcendence, or creative power, but an object charged 
with fluids. In societies where man worships such mysteries, woman, 
because of these qualities, is associated with religion and venerated as 
a priestess; but when he struggles to make society triumph over 


nature, reason over life, will over inert fact, woman is regarded as a 
sorceress. The difference between the priest and the magician is well- 
known: the former dominates and directs the forces he has mastered 
in keeping with the gods and laws, for the good of the community, on 
behalf of all its members, while the magician operates outside society, 
against the gods and laws, according to his own passions. But woman 
is not fully integrated into the world of men; as other, she counters 
them; it is natural for her to use the strengths she possesses, not to 
spread the hold of transcendence across the community of men and 
into the future, but, being separate and opposed, to draw males into 
the solitude of separation, into the darkness of immanence. She is the 
mermaid whose songs dashed the sailors against the rocks; she is 
Circe, who turned her lovers into animals, the water sprite that 
attracted the fisherman to the depths of the pools. The man captivated 
by her spell loses his will, his project, his future; he is no longer a 
citizen but flesh, slave to his desires, he is crossed out of the 
community, enclosed in the instant, thrown passively from torture to 
pleasure; the perverse magician pits passion against duty, the present 
against the unity of time, she keeps the traveler far from home, she 
spreads forgetfulness. In attempting to appropriate the Other, man 
must remain himself; but with the failure of impossible possession, he 
tries to become this other with whom he fails to unite; so he alienates 
himself, he loses himself, he drinks the potion that turns him into a 
stranger to himself, he falls to the bottom of deadly and roiling waters. 
The Mother dooms her son to death in giving him life; the woman 
lover draws her lover into relinquishing life and giving himself up to 
the supreme sleep. This link between Love and Death was pathetically 
illuminated in the Tristan legend, but it has a more primary truth. Born 
of flesh, man accomplishes himself in love as flesh, and flesh is 
destined to the grave. The alliance between Woman and Death is thus 
confirmed; the great reaper is the inverted figure of corn-growing 
fertility. But it is also the frightening wife whose skeleton appears 
under deceitful and tender flesh. 16 

What man thus cherishes and detests first in woman, lover as well 
as mother, is the fixed image of her animal destiny, the life essential to 
her existence, but that condemns her to finitude and death. From the 
day of birth, man begins to die: this is the truth that the mother 
embodies. In procreating, he guarantees the species against himself: 


this is what he learns in his wife's arms; in arousal and in pleasure, 
even before engendering, he forgets his singular self. Should he try to 
differentiate them, he still finds in both one fact alone, that of his 
carnal condition. He wants to accomplish it: he venerates his mother; 
he desires his mistress. But at the same time, he rebels against them in 
disgust, in fear. 

An important text where we will find a synthesis of almost all these 
myths is Jean-Richard Bloch's La nuit kurde {A Night in Kurdistan), 
in which he describes young Saad's embraces of a much older but 
still beautiful woman during the plundering of a city: 

The night abolished the contours of things and feelings alike. He 
was no longer clasping a woman to him. He was at last nearing 
the end of an interminable voyage that had been pursued since 
the beginning of the world. Little by little he dissolved into an 
immensity that cradled him round without shape or end. All 
women were confused into one giant land, folded upon him, 
suave as desire burning in summer . . . 

He, meanwhile, recognised with a fearful admiration the 
power that is enclosed within woman, the long, stretched, satin 
thighs, the knees like two ivory hills. When he traced the 
polished arch of the back, from the waist to the shoulders, he 
seemed to be feeling the vault that supports the world. But the 
belly ceaselessly drew him, a tender and elastic ocean, whence all 
life is born, and whither it returns, asylum of asylums, with its 
tides, horizons, illimitable surfaces. 

Then he was seized with a rage to pierce that delightful 
envelope, and at last win to the very source of all this beauty. A 
simultaneous urge wrapped them one within the other. The 
woman now only lived to be cleaved by the share, to open to him 
her vitals, to gorge herself with the humours of the beloved. 
Their ecstasy was murderous. They came together as if with 
stabbing daggers . . . 

He, man, the isolated, the separated, the cut off, was going to 
gush forth from out of his own substance, he, the first, would 
come forth from his fleshly prison and at last go free, matter and 
soul, into the universal matrix. To him was reserved the unheard 
of happiness of overpassing the limits of the creature, of 


dissolving into the one exaltation object and subject, question 
and answer, of annexing to being all that is not being, and of 
embracing, in an unextinguishable river, the empire of the 
unattainable ... 

But each coming and going of the bow awoke, in the precious 
instrument it held at its mercy, vibrations more and more 
piercing. Suddenly, a last spasm unloosed him from the zenith, 
and cast him down again to earth, to the mire. 

As the woman's desire is not quenched, she imprisons her lover 
between her legs, and he feels in spite of himself his desire returning: 
she is thus an enemy power who grabs his virility, and while 
possessing her again, he bites her throat so deeply that he kills her. 
The cycle from mother to woman-lover to death meanders to a 
complex close. 

There are many possible attitudes here for man depending on which 
aspect of the carnal drama he stresses. If a man does not think life is 
unique, if he is not concerned with his singular destiny, if he does not 
fear death, he will joyously accept his animality. For Muslims, 
woman is reduced to a state of abjection because of the feudal 
structure of society that does not allow recourse to the state against the 
family and because of religion, expressing this civilization's warrior 
ideal, that has destined man to death and stripped woman of her 
magic: What would anyone on earth, ready to dive without any 
hesitation into the voluptuous orgies of the Muhammadan paradise, 
fear? Man can thus enjoy woman without worrying or having to 
defend himself against himself or her. The Thousand and One Nights 
looks on her as a source of creamy delights much like fruits, jams, 
rich desserts, and perfumed oils. This sensual benevolence can be 
found today among many Mediterranean peoples: replete, not seeking 
immortality, the man from the Midi grasps Nature in its luxurious 
aspect, relishes women; by tradition he scorns them sufficiently so as 
not to grasp them as individuals: between the enjoyment of their 
bodies and that of sand and water there is not much difference for 
him; he does not experience the horror of the flesh either in them or in 
himself. In Conversations in Sicily, Vittorini recounts, with quiet 
amazement, having discovered the naked body of woman at the age of 
seven. Greek and Roman rationalist thought confirms this 


spontaneous attitude. Greek optimist philosophy went beyond 
Pythagorean Manichaeism; the inferior is subordinate to the superior 
and as such is useful to him: these harmonious ideologies show no 
hostility whatsoever to the flesh. Turned toward the heaven of Ideas 
or in toward the City or State, the individual thinking himself as nous 
or as a citizen thinks he has overcome his animal condition: whether 
he gives himself up to voluptuousness or practices asceticism, a 
woman firmly integrated into male society is only of secondary 
importance. It is true that rationalism has never triumphed totally and 
erotic experience remains ambivalent in these civilizations: rites, 
mythologies, and literature are testimony to that. But femininity's 
attractions and dangers manifest themselves there only in attenuated 
form. Christianity is what drapes woman anew with frightening 
prestige: one of the fears the rending of the unhappy consciousness 
takes for man is fear of the other sex. The Christian is separated from 
himself; the division of body and soul, of life and spirit, is consumed: 
original sin turns the body into the soul's enemy; all carnal links 
appear bad. 17 Man can be saved by being redeemed by Christ and 
turning toward the celestial kingdom; but at the beginning, he is no 
more than rottenness; his birth dooms him not only to death but to 
damnation; divine grace can open heaven to him, but all avatars of his 
natural existence are cursed. Evil is an absolute reality; and flesh is 
sin. Since woman never stopped being Other, of course, male and 
female are never reciprocally considered flesh: the flesh for the 
Christian male is the enemy Other and is not distinguished from 
woman. The temptations of the earth, sex, and the devil are incarnated 
in her. All the Church Fathers emphasize the fact that she led Adam to 
sin. Once again, Tertullian has to be quoted: "Woman! You are the 
devil's gateway. You have convinced the one the devil did not dare to 
confront directly. It is your fault that God's Son had to die. You 
should always dress in mourning and rags." All Christian literature 
endeavors to exacerbate man's disgust for woman. Tertullian defines 
her as "Templum aedificatum super cloacamT* 

Saint Augustine points out in horror the proximity of the sexual 
and excretory organs: "Inter faeces et urinam nascimur."^ 
Christianity's repugnance for the feminine body is such that it 
consents to doom its God to an ignominious death but saves him the 
stain of birth: the Council of Ephesus in the Eastern Church and the 


Lateran Council in the West affirm the virgin birth of Christ. The first 
Church Fathers — Origen, Tertullian, and Jerome — thought that Mary 
had given birth in blood and filth like other women; but the opinions 
of Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine prevail. The Virgin's womb 
remained closed. Since the Middle Ages, the fact of having a body 
was considered an ignominy for woman. Science itself was paralyzed 
for a long time by this disgust. Linnaeus, in his treatise on nature, 
dismissed the study of woman's genital organs as "abominable." Des 
Laurens, the French doctor, dared to ask how "this divine animal full 
of reason and judgment that is called man can be attracted by these 
obscene parts of the woman, tainted by humors and placed shamefully 
at the lowest part of the trunk." Many other influences come into play 
along with Christian thought; and even this has more than one side; 
but in the puritan world, for example, hatred of the flesh still obtains; 
it is expressed in Light in August, by Faulkner; the hero's first sexual 
experiences are highly traumatic. In all literature, a young man's first 
sexual intercourse is often upsetting to the point of inducing vomiting; 
and if, in truth, such a reaction is very rare, it is not by chance that it is 
so often described. In puritan Anglo-Saxon countries in particular, 
woman stirs up more or less avowed terror in most adolescents and 
many men. This is quite true in France. Michel Leiris wrote in L 'age 
d'homme (Manhood): "I have a tendency to consider the feminine 
organ as a dirty thing or a wound, not less attractive though for that, 
but dangerous in itself, as everything that is bloody, viscous, and 
contaminated." The idea of venereal maladies expresses these frights; 
woman is feared not because she gives these illnesses; it is the 
illnesses that seem abominable because they come from woman: I 
have been told about young men who thought that too frequent sexual 
relations caused gonorrhea. People also readily think that sexual 
intercourse makes man lose his muscular strength and mental lucidity, 
consumes his phosphorus, and coarsens his sensitivity. The same 
dangers threaten in masturbation; and for moral reasons society 
considers it even more harmful than the normal sexual function. 
Legitimate marriage and the desire to have children guard against the 
evil spells of eroticism. I have already said that the Other is implied in 
all sexual acts; and its face is usually woman's. Man experiences his 
own flesh's passivity the most strongly in front of her. Woman is 
vampire, ghoul, eater, drinker; her sex organ feeds gluttonously on the 


male sex organ. Some psychoanalysts have tried to give these 
imaginings scientific foundations: the pleasure woman derives from 
coitus is supposed to come from the fact that she symbolically 
castrates the male and appropriates his sex organ. But it would seem 
that these theories themselves need to be psychoanalyzed and that the 
doctors who invented them have projected onto them ancestral 
terrors. 18 

The source of these terrors is that in the Other, beyond any 
annexation, alterity remains. In patriarchal societies, woman kept 
many of the disquieting virtues she held in primitive societies. That 
explains why she is never left to Nature, why she is surrounded by 
taboos, purified by rites, and placed under the control of priests; man 
is taught never to approach her in her original nudity, but through 
ceremonies and sacraments that wrest her from the earth and flesh and 
metamorphose her into a human creature: thus the magic she 
possesses is channeled as lightning has been since the invention of 
lightning rods and electric power plants. It is even possible to use her 
in the group's interests: this is another phase of the oscillatory 
movement defining man's relationship to his female. He loves her 
because she is his, he fears her because she remains other; but it is as 
the feared other that he seeks to make her most deeply his: this is what 
will lead him to raise her to the dignity of a person and to recognize 
her as his peer. 

Feminine magic was profoundly domesticated in the patriarchal 
family. Woman gave society the opportunity to integrate cosmic 
forces into it. In his work Mitra-Var -una, Dumezil points out that in 
India as in Rome, virile power asserts itself in two ways: in Varuna 
and Romulus, and in the Gan-dharvas and the Luperci, it is 
aggression, abduction, disorder, and hubris; thus, woman is the being 
to be ravished and violated; if the ravished Sabine women are sterile, 
they are whipped with goatskin straps, compensating for violence 
with more violence. But on the contrary, Mitra, Numa, the Brahman 
women, and the Flamen wives represent reasonable law and order in 
the city: so the woman is bound to her husband by a ritualistic 
marriage, and she collaborates with him to ensure his domination over 
all female forces of nature; in Rome, the flamen dialis resigns from 


his position if his wife dies. In Egypt as well, Isis, having lost her 
supreme power as Mother Goddess, remains nonetheless generous, 
smiling, benevolent, and obedient, Osiris 's magnificent spouse. But 
when woman is thus man's partner, his complement, his other half, 
she is necessarily endowed with a consciousness and a soul; he could 
not so deeply depend on a being who would not participate in the 
human essence. It has already been seen that the Laws of Manu 
promised a legal wife the same paradise as her spouse. The more the 
male becomes individualized and claims his individuality, the more he 
will recognize an individual and a freedom in his companion. The 
Oriental man who is unconcerned with his own destiny is satisfied 
with a female who is his pleasure object; but Western man's dream, 
once elevated to consciousness of the singularity of his being, is to be 
recognized by a foreign and docile freedom. The Greek man cannot 
find the peer he wants in a woman who was prisoner of the 
gynaeceum: so he confers his love on male companions, whose flesh, 
like his own, is endowed with a consciousness and a freedom, or else 
he gives his love to hetaeras, whose independence, culture, and spirit 
made them near equals. But when circumstances permit, the wife best 
satisfies man's demands. The Roman citizen recognizes a person in 
the matron; in Cornelia or in Arria, he possesses his double. 
Paradoxically, it was Christianity that was to proclaim the equality of 
man and woman on a certain level. Christianity detests the flesh in 
her; if she rejects the flesh, she is, like him, a creature of God, 
redeemed by the Savior: here she can take her place beside males, 
among those souls guaranteed celestial happiness. Men and women 
are God's servants, almost as asexual as the angels, who, together 
with the help of grace, reject earth's temptations. If she agrees to 
renounce her animality, woman, from the very fact that she incarnated 
sin, will also be the most radiant incarnation of the triumph of the elect 
who have conquered sin. 19 Of course, the divine Savior who brings 
about Redemption is male; but humanity must cooperate in its own 
salvation, and perversely it will be called upon to manifest its 
submissive goodwill in its most humiliated figure. Christ is God; but 
it is a woman, the Virgin Mother, who reigns over all human 
creatures. Yet only marginal sects restore the great goddesses' ancient 
privileges to the woman. The Church expresses and serves a 
patriarchal civilization where it is befitting for woman to remain 


annexed to man. As his docile servant, she will also be a blessed 
saint. Thus the image of the most perfected woman, propitious to 
men, lies at the heart of the Middle Ages: the face of the Mother of 
Christ is encircled in glory. She is the inverse figure of the sinner Eve; 
she crushes the serpent under her foot; she is the mediator of 
salvation, as Eve was of damnation. 

It is as Mother that the woman was held in awe; through 
motherhood she has to be transfigured and subjugated. Mary's 
virginity has above all a negative value: she by whom the flesh has 
been redeemed is not carnal; she has been neither touched nor 
possessed. Neither was the Asiatic Great Mother assumed to have a 
husband: she had engendered the world and reigned over it alone; she 
could be lascivious by impulse, but her greatness as Mother was not 
diminished by imposed wifely servitudes. Likewise, Mary never 
experienced the stain connected with sexuality. Related to the woman 
warrior Minerva, she is an ivory tower, a citadel, an impregnable 
fortress. Like most Christian saints, the priestesses of antiquity were 
virgins: the woman devoted to good should be devoted with the 
splendor of her strength intact; she must conserve the principle of her 
femininity in its unbroken wholeness. One rejects in Mary her 
character as wife in order to more fully exalt in her the Woman- 
Mother. But she will be glorified only by accepting the subservient 
role assigned to her. "I am the handmaiden of the Lord." For the first 
time in the history of humanity, the mother kneels before her son; she 
freely recognizes her inferiority. The supreme masculine victory is 
consummated in the cult of Mary: it is the rehabilitation of woman by 
the achievement of her defeat. Ishtar, Astarte, and Cybele were cruel, 
capricious, and lustful; they were powerful; the source of death as 
well as life, in giving birth to men, they made them their slaves. With 
Christianity, life and death now depended on God alone, so man, born 
of the maternal breast, escaped it forever, and the earth gets only his 
bones; his soul's destiny is played out in regions where the mother's 
powers are abolished; the sacrament of baptism makes ceremonies 
that burned or drowned the placenta insignificant. There is no longer 
any place on earth for magic: God alone is king. Nature is originally 
bad, but powerless when countered with grace. Motherhood as a 
natural phenomenon confers no power. If woman wishes to overcome 
the original stain in herself, her only alternative is to bow before God, 


whose will subordinates her to man. And by this submission she can 
assume a new role in masculine mythology. As a vassal, she will be 
honored, whereas she was beaten and trampled underfoot when she 
saw herself as dominator or as long as she did not explicitly abdicate. 
She loses none of her primitive attributes; but their meanings change; 
from calamitous they become auspicious; black magic turns to white 
magic. As a servant, woman is entitled to the most splendid 

And since she was subjugated as Mother, she will, as Mother first, 
be cherished and respected. Of the two ancient faces of maternity, 
modern man recognizes only the benevolent one. Limited in time and 
space, possessing only one body and one finite life, man is but one 
individual in the middle of a foreign Nature and History. Limited like 
him, similarly inhabited by the spirit, woman belongs to Nature, she is 
traversed by the infinite current of Life, she thus appears as the 
mediator between the individual and the cosmos. When the mother 
image became reassuring and holy, it is understandable that the man 
turned to her with love. Lost in nature, he seeks escape, but separated 
from her, he aspires to return to her. Solidly settled in the family and 
society, in accord with laws and customs, the mother is the very 
incarnation of the Good: the nature in which she participates becomes 
Good; she is no longer the spirit's enemy; and though she remains 
mysterious, it is a smiling mystery, like Leonardo da Vinci's 
Madonnas. Man does not wish to be woman, but he longs to wrap 
himself in everything that is, including this woman he is not: in 
worshipping his mother, he tries to appropriate her riches so foreign 
to him. To recognize himself as his mother's son, he recognizes the 
mother in him, integrating femininity insofar as it is a connection to 
the earth, to life, and to the past. In Vittorini's Conversations in Sicily, 
that is what the hero goes to find from his mother: his native land, its 
scents and its fruits, his childhood, his ancestors' past, traditions, and 
the roots from which his individual existence separated him. It is this 
very rootedness that exalts man's pride in going beyond; he likes to 
admire himself breaking away from his mother's arms to leave for 
adventure, the future, and war; this departure would be less moving if 
there were no one to try to hold him back: it would look like an 
accident, not a hard-won victory. And he also likes to know that these 
arms are ready to welcome him back. After the tension of action, the 


hero likes to taste the restfulness of immanence again, by his mother's 
side: she is refuge, slumber; by her hand's caress he sinks into the 
bosom of nature, lets himself be lulled by the vast flow of life as 
peacefully as in the womb or in the tomb. And if tradition has him die 
calling on his mother, it is because under the maternal gaze death 
itself, like birth, is tamed, symmetrical with birth, indissolubly linked 
with his whole carnal life. The mother remains connected to death as 
in ancient Parcae mythology; it is she who buries the dead, who 
mourns. But her role is precisely to integrate death with life, with 
society, with the good. And so the cult of "heroic mothers" is 
systematically encouraged: if society persuades mothers to surrender 
their sons to death, then it thinks it can claim the right to assassinate 
them. Because of the mother's hold on her sons, it is useful for 
society to make her part of it: this is why the mother is showered with 
signs of respect, why she is endowed with all virtues, why a religion 
is created around her from which it is forbidden to stray under severe 
risk of sacrilege and blasphemy; she is made the guardian of morality; 
servant of man, servant of the powers that be, she fondly guides her 
children along fixed paths. The more resolutely optimistic the 
collectivity and the more docilely it accepts this loving authority, the 
more transfigured the mother will be. The American "Mom" has 
become the idol described by Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers, 
because the official American ideology is the most stubbornly 
optimistic. To glorify the mother is to accept birth, life, and death in 
both their animal and their social forms and to proclaim the harmony 
of nature and society. Auguste Comte makes the woman the divinity 
of future Humanity because he dreams of achieving this synthesis. 
But this is also why all rebels assail the figure of the mother; in 
holding her up to ridicule, they reject the given claims supposedly 
imposed on them through the female guardian of morals and laws. 20 

The aura of respect around the Mother and the taboos that surround 
her repress the hostile disgust that mingles spontaneously with the 
carnal tenderness she inspires. However, lurking below the surface, 
the latent horror of motherhood survives. In particular, it is interesting 
that in France since the Middle Ages, a secondary myth has been 
forged, freely expressing this repugnance: that of the Mother-in-Law. 
From fabliau to vaudeville, there are no taboos on man's ridicule of 
motherhood in general through his wife's mother. He hates the idea 


that the woman he loves was conceived: the mother-in-law is the clear 
image of the decrepitude that she doomed her daughter to by giving 
her life, and her obesity and her wrinkles forecast the obesity and 
wrinkles that the future so sadly prefigures for the young bride; at her 
mother's side she is no longer an individual but an example of a 
species; she is no longer the desired prey or the cherished companion, 
because her individual existence dissolves into universality. Her 
individuality is mockingly contested by generalities, her spirit's 
autonomy by her being rooted in the past and in the flesh: this is the 
derision man objectifies as a grotesque character; but through the 
rancor of his laughter, he knows that the fate of his wife is the same 
for all human beings; it is his own. In every country, legends and tales 
have also personified the cruel side of motherhood in the stepmother. 
She is the cruel mother who tries to kill Snow White. The ancient Kali 
with the necklace of severed heads lives on in the mean stepmother — 
Mme Fichini whipping Sophie throughout Mme de Segur's books. 

Yet behind the sainted Mother crowds the coterie of white witches 
who provide man with herbal juices and stars' rays: grandmothers, 
old women with kind eyes, good-hearted servants, sisters of charity, 
nurses with magical hands, the sort of mistress Verlaine dreamed of: 

Sweet, pensive and dark and surprised at nothing 

And who will at times kiss you on the forehead like a child. 

They are ascribed the pure mystery of knotted vines, of freshwater; 
they dress and heal wounds; their wisdom is life's silent wisdom, 
they understand without words. In their presence man forgets his 
pride; he understands the sweetness of yielding and becoming a child, 
because between him and her there is no struggle for prestige: he 
could not resent the inhuman virtues of nature; and in their devotion, 
the wise initiates who care for him recognize they are his servants; he 
submits to their benevolent powers because he knows that while 
submitting to them, he remains their master. Sisters, childhood 
girlfriends, pure young girls, and all future mothers belong to this 
blessed troupe. And the wife herself, when her erotic magic fades, is 
regarded by many men less as a lover than as the mother of their 
children. Once the mother is sanctified and servile, she can safely be 
with a woman friend, she being also sanctified and submissive. To 


redeem the mother is to redeem the flesh, and thus carnal union and 
the wife. 

Deprived of her magic weapons by nuptial rites, economically and 
socially dependent on her husband, the "good wife" is man's most 
precious treasure. She belongs to him so profoundly that she shares 
the same nature with him: "Ubi tu Gains, ego Gaia"; she has his 
name and his gods, and she is his responsibility: he calls her his other 
half. He takes pride in his wife as in his home, his land, his flocks, 
and his wealth, and sometimes even more; through her he displays his 
power to the rest of the world: she is his yardstick and his earthly 
share. For Orientals, a wife should be fat: everyone sees that she is 
well fed and brings respect to her master. 2 1 A Muslim is all the more 
respected if he possesses a large number of flourishing wives. In 
bourgeois society, one of woman's assigned roles is to represent: her 
beauty, her charm, her intelligence, and her elegance are outward 
signs of her husband's fortune, as is the body of his car. If he is rich, 
he covers her with furs and jewels. If he is poorer, he boasts of her 
moral qualities and her housekeeping talents; most deprived, he feels 
he owns something earthly if he has a wife to serve him; the hero of 
The Taming of the Shrew summons all his neighbors to show them 
his authority in taming his wife. A sort of King Candaules resides in 
all men: he exhibits his wife because he believes she displays his own 

But woman does more than flatter man's social vanity; she allows 
him a more intimate pride; he delights in his domination over her; 
superimposed on the naturalistic images of the plowshare cutting 
furrows are more spiritual symbols concerning the wife as a person; 
the husband "forms" his wife not only erotically but also spiritually 
and intellectually; he educates her, impresses her, puts his imprint on 
her. One of the daydreams he enjoys is the impregnation of things by 
his will, shaping their form, penetrating their substance: the woman is 
par excellence the "clay in his hands" that passively lets itself be 
worked and shaped, resistant while yielding, permitting masculine 
activity to go on. A too-plastic material wears out by its softness; 
what is precious in woman is that something in her always escapes all 
embraces; so man is master of a reality that is all the more worthy of 
being mastered as it surpasses him. She awakens in him a being 
heretofore ignored whom he recognizes with pride as himself; in their 


safe marital orgies he discovers the splendor of his animality: he is the 
Male; and woman, correlatively, the female, but this word sometimes 
takes on the most flattering implications: the female who broods, who 
nurses, who licks her young, who defends them, and who risks her 
life to save them is an example for humans; with emotion, man 
demands this patience and devotion from his companion; again it is 
Nature, but imbued with all of the virtues useful to society, family, 
and the head of the family, virtues he knows how to keep locked in 
his home. A common desire of children and men is to uncover the 
secret hidden inside things; but in this, the matter can be deceptive: a 
doll ripped apart with her stomach outside has no more interiority; the 
interior of living things is more impenetrable; the female womb is the 
symbol of immanence, of depth; it delivers its secrets in part as when, 
for example, pleasure shows on a woman's face, but it also holds 
them in; man catches life's obscure palpitations in his house without 
the mystery being destroyed by possession. In the human world, 
woman transposes the female animal's functions: she maintains life, 
she reigns over the zones of immanence; she transports the warmth 
and the intimacy of the womb into the home; she watches over and 
enlivens the dwelling where the past is kept, where the future is 
presaged; she engenders the future generation, and she nourishes the 
children already born; thanks to her, the existence that man expends 
throughout the world by his work and his activity is re-centered by 
delving into her immanence: when he comes home at night, he is 
anchored to the earth; the wife assures the days' continuity; whatever 
risks he faces in the outside world, she guarantees the stability of his 
meals and sleep; she repairs whatever has been damaged or worn out 
by activity: she prepares the tired worker's food, she cares for him if 
he is ill, she mends and washes. And within the conjugal universe that 
she sets up and perpetuates, she brings in the whole vast world: she 
lights the fires, puts flowers in vases, and domesticates the 
emanations of sun, water, and earth. A bourgeois writer cited by 
Bebel summarizes this ideal in all seriousness as follows: "Man wants 
not only someone whose heart beats for him, but whose hand wipes 
his brow, who radiates peace, order, and tranquillity, a silent control 
over himself and those things he finds when he comes home every 
day; he wants someone who can spread over everything the 
indescribable perfume of woman who is the vivifying warmth of 


home life." 

It is clear how spiritualized the figure of woman became with the 
birth of Christianity; the beauty, warmth, and intimacy that man 
wishes to grasp through her are no longer tangible qualities; instead of 
being the summation of the pleasurable quality of things, she becomes 
their soul; deeper than carnal mystery, her heart holds a secret and 
pure presence that reflects truth in the world. She is the soul of the 
house, the family, and the home, as well as larger groups: the town, 
province, or nation. Jung observes that cities have always been 
compared to the Mother because they hold their citizens in their 
bosoms: this is why Cybele was depicted crowned with towers; for 
the same reason the term "mother country" is used and not only 
because of the nourishing soil; rather, a more subtle reality found its 
symbol in the woman. In the Old Testament and in the Apocalypse, 
Jerusalem and Babylon are not only mothers: they are also wives. 
There are virgin cities and prostitute cities such as Babel and Tyre. 
France too has been called "the eldest daughter" of the Church; France 
and Italy are Latin sisters. Woman's function is not specified, but 
femininity is, in statues that represent France, Rome, and Germany 
and those on the Place de la Concorde that evoke Strasbourg and 
Lyon. This assimilation is not only allegoric: it is affectively practiced 
by many men. 22 Many a traveler would ask woman for the key to the 
countries he visits: when he holds an Italian or Spanish woman in his 
arms, he feels he possesses the fragrant essence of Italy or Spain. 
"When I come to a new city, the first thing I do is to visit a brothel," 
said a journalist. If a cinnamon hot chocolate can make Gide discover 
the whole of Spain, all the more reason kisses from exotic lips will 
bring to a lover a country with its flora and fauna, its traditions, and 
its culture. Woman is the summation neither of its political institutions 
nor of its economic resources; but she is the incarnation of carnal 
flesh and mystical mana. From Lamartine's Graziella to Loti's novels 
and Morand's short stories, the foreigner is seen as trying to 
appropriate the soul of a region through women. Mignon, Sylvie, 
Mireille, Colomba, and Carmen uncover the most intimate truth about 
Italy, Valois, Provence, Corsica, or Andalusia. When the Alsatian 
Frederique falls in love with Goethe, the Germans take it as a symbol 
of Germany's annexation; likewise, when Colette Baudoche refuses 
to marry a German, Barres sees it as Alsace refusing Germany. He 


personifies Aigues-Mortes and a whole refined and frivolous 
civilization in the sole person of Berenice; she represents the 
sensibility of the writer himself. Man recognizes his own mysterious 
double in her, she who is the soul of nature, cities, and the universe; 
man's soul is Psyche, a woman. 

Psyche has feminine traits in Edgar Allan Poe's "Ulalume": 

Here once, through an alley Titanic, 
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul — 
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul ... 
Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her ... 
And I said — "What is written, sweet sister, 
On the door of this legended tomb? " 

And Mallarme, at the theater, in a dialogue with "a soul, or else our 
idea" (that is, divinity present in man's spirit) called it "a most 
exquisite abnormal lady [sic]." 23 

Thing of harmony, ME, a dream, 
Firm, flexible feminine, whose silences lead 
To pure acts! ... 
Thing of mystery, ME* 

Such is Valery's way of hailing her. The Christian world substituted 
less carnal presences for nymphs and fairies; but homes, landscapes, 
cities, and individuals themselves are still haunted by an impalpable 

This truth buried in the night of things also shines in the heavens; 
perfect immanence, the Soul is at the same time the transcendent, the 
Idea. Not only cities and nations but also entities and abstract 
institutions are cloaked in feminine traits: the Church, the Synagogue, 
the Republic, and Humanity are women, as well as Peace, War, 
Liberty, the Revolution, Victory. Man feminizes the ideal that he 
posits before him as the essential Other, because woman is the 
tangible figure of alterity; this is why almost all the allegories in 
language and in iconography are women. 24 Soul and Idea, woman is 
also the mediator between them: she is the Grace that leads the 
Christian to God, she is Beatrice guiding Dante to the beyond, Laura 


beckoning Petrarch to the highest peaks of poetry. She appears in all 
doctrines assimilating Nature to Spirit as Harmony, Reason, and 
Truth. Gnostic sects made Wisdom a woman, Sophia; they attributed 
the world's redemption to her, and even its creation. So woman is no 
longer flesh, she is glorious body; rather than trying to possess her, 
men venerate her for her untouched splendor; the pale dead of Edgar 
Allan Poe are as fluid as water, wind, or memory; for courtly love, for 
les precieux, and in all of the gallant tradition, woman is no longer an 
animal creature but rather an ethereal being, a breath, a radiance. Thus 
it is that the feminine Night's opacity is converted into transparence, 
and obscurity into purity, as inNovalis's texts: 

Thou, Night- inspiration, heavenly Slumber, didst come upon me 
— the region gently upheaved itself; over it hovered my 
unbound, newborn spirit. The mound became a cloud of dust — 
and through the cloud I saw the glorified face of my beloved. 

Dost thou also take a pleasure in us, dark Night?... Precious 
balm drips from thy hand out of its bundle of poppies. Thou 
upliftest the heavy-laden wings of the soul. Darkly and 
inexpressibly are we moved — joy-startled, I see a grave face that, 
tender and worshipful, inclines toward me, and, amid manifold 
entangled locks, reveals the youthful loveliness of the 
Mother . . . More heavenly than those glittering stars we hold the 
eternal eyes which the Night hath opened within us. 

The downward attraction exercised by woman is inverted; she 
beckons man no longer earthward, but toward heaven. 

The Eternal Feminine 
Leads us upward, 

proclaimed Goethe at the end of Faust, Part Two. 

As the Virgin Mary is the most perfected image, the most widely 
venerated image of the regenerated woman devoted to the Good, it is 
interesting to see how she appears through literature and iconography. 
Here are passages from medieval litanies showing how fervent 
Christians addressed her: 

Most high Virgin, thou art the fertile Dew, the Fountain of Joy, 


the Channel of mercy, the Well of living waters that cools our 

Thou art the Breast from which God nurses orphans. 

Thou art the Marrow, the Inside, the Core of all good. 

Thou art the guileless Woman whose love never changes. 

Thou art the Probatic Pool, the Remedy of lepers, the subtle 
Physician whose like is found neither in Salerno nor in 

Thou art the Lady of healing hands, whose fingers so 
beautiful, so white, so long, restore noses and mouths, give new 
eyes and ears. Thou calmest passions, givest life to the 
paralyzed, givest strength to the weak, risest the dead. 

Most of the feminine attributes we have referred to are found in 
these invocations. The Virgin is fertility, dew, and the source of life; 
many of the images show her at the well, the spring, or the fountain; 
the expression "Fountain of Life" was one of the most common; she 
was not a creator, but she nourishes, she brings to the light of day 
what was hidden in the earth. She is the deep reality hidden under the 
appearance of things: the Core, the Marrow. Through her, passions 
are tempered; she is what is given to man to satiate him. Wherever life 
is threatened, she saves and restores it: she heals and strengthens. 
And because life emanates from God, she as the intermediary between 
man and life is likewise the intermediary between humanity and God. 
"The devil's gateway," said Tertullian. But transfigured, she is 
heaven's portal; paintings represent her opening the gate or the 
window onto paradise or raising a ladder from earth to the heavens. 
More straightforward, she becomes an advocate, pleading beside her 
Son for the salvation of men: many tableaux of the Last Judgment 
have her baring her breast in supplication to Christ in the name of her 
glorious motherhood. She protects men's children in the folds of her 
cloak; her merciful love follows them through dangers over oceans 
and battlefields. She moves Divine Justice in the name of charity: the 
"Virgins of the Scales" are seen, smiling, tilting the balance where 
souls are weighed to the side of the Good. 

This merciful and tender role is one of the most important of all 
those granted to woman. Even integrated into society, the woman 


subtly exceeds its boundaries because she possesses the insidious 
generosity of Life. This distance between the males' intended 
constructions and nature's contingency seems troubling in some 
cases; but it becomes beneficial when the woman, too docile to 
threaten men's work, limits herself to enriching and softening their 
too sharp edges. Male gods represent Destiny; on the goddesses' side 
are found arbitrary benevolence and capricious favor. The Christian 
God has the rigors of Justice; the Virgin has gentleness and charity. 
On earth, men are the defenders of laws, reason, and necessity; 
woman knows the original contingency of man himself and of the 
necessity he believes in; from this comes her supple generosity and 
the mysterious irony that touches her lips. She gives birth in pain, she 
heals males' wounds, she nurses the newborn and buries the dead; of 
man she knows all that offends his pride and humiliates his will. 
While inclining before him and submitting flesh to spirit, she remains 
on the carnal borders of the spirit; and she contests the sharpness of 
hard masculine architecture by softening the angles; she introduces 
free luxury and unforeseen grace. Her power over men comes from 
her tenderly recalling a modest consciousness of their authentic 
condition; it is the secret of her illusionless, painful, ironic, and loving 
wisdom. Even frivolity, whimsy, and ignorance are charming virtues 
in her because they thrive beneath and beyond the world where man 
chooses to live but where he does not want to feel confined. 
Confronted with arrested meaning and utilitarian instruments, she 
upholds the mystery of intact things; she brings the breath of poetry 
into city streets and plowed fields. Poetry attempts to capture that 
which exists above everyday prose: woman is an eminently poetic 
reality since man projects onto her everything he is not resolved to be. 
She incarnates the Dream; for man, the dream is the most intimate and 
the most foreign presence, what he does not want, what he does not 
do, which he aspires to but cannot attain; the mysterious Other who is 
profound immanence and far-off transcendence will lend him her 
traits. Thus it is that Aurelia visits Nerval in a dream and gives him 
the whole world in a dream. "She began to grow in a bright ray of 
light so that little by little the garden took on her form, and the flower 
beds and the trees became the rosettes and festoons of her dress; 
while her face and her arms impressed their shape upon the reddened 
clouds in the sky. I was losing sight of her as she was being 


transfigured, for she seemed to be vanishing into her own grandeur. 
'Oh flee not from me!' I cried; 'for nature dies with you.' " 

Being the very substance of man's poetic activities, woman is 
understandably his inspiration: the Muses are women. The Muse is 
the conduit between the creator and the natural springs he draws from. 
It is through woman's spirit deeply connected to nature that man will 
explore the depths of silence and the fertile night. The Muse creates 
nothing on her own; she is a wise sibyl making herself the docile 
servant of a master. Even in concrete and practical spheres, her 
counsel will be useful. Man wishes to attain the goals he sets without 
the help of his peers, and he would find another man's opinion 
inopportune; but he supposes that the woman speaks to him in the 
name of other values, in the name of a wisdom that he does not claim 
to have, more instinctive than his own, more immediately in accord 
with the real; these are the "intuitions" that Egeria uses to counsel and 
guide; he consults her without fear for his self-esteem as he consults 
the stars. This "intuition" even enters into business or politics: Apasia 
and Mme de Maintenon still have flourishing careers today. 25 

There is another function that man willingly entrusts to woman: 
being the purpose behind men's activities and the source of their 
decisions, she is also the judge of values. She is revealed as a 
privileged judge. Man dreams of an Other not only to possess her but 
also to be validated by her; to be validated by men who are his peers 
entails constant tension on his part: that is why he wants an outside 
view conferring absolute value on his life, on his undertakings, on 
himself. God's gaze is hidden, foreign, disquieting: even in periods of 
faith, only a few mystics felt its intensity. This divine role often 
devolved on the woman. Close to the man, dominated by him, she 
does not posit values that are foreign to him: and yet, as she is other, 
she remains exterior to the world of men and can thus grasp it 
objectively. It is she who will denounce the presence or absence of 
courage, of strength, and of beauty while confirming from the outside 
their universal value. Men are too busy in their cooperative or 
combative relations to be an audience for each other: they do not think 
about each other. Woman is removed from their activities and does 
not take part in their jousts and combats: her entire situation 
predestines her to play this role of onlooker. The chevalier jousts in 
tournaments for his lady; poets seek woman's approval. When 


Rastignac sets out to conquer Paris, he thinks first of having women, 
less about possessing their bodies than enjoying that reputation that 
only they are capable of creating for a man. Balzac projected the story 
of his own youth onto his young heroes: his education began with 
older mistresses; and the woman played the role of educator not only 
in Le lys dans la vallee {The Lily in the Valley); she was also assigned 
this role in L 'Education sentimental (Sentimental Education), in 
Stendhal's novels, and in numerous other coming-of-age novels. It 
has already been observed that the woman is both physis and anti- 
physis; she personifies Society as well as Nature; through her the 
civilization of a period and its culture is summed up, as can be seen in 
courtly poetry, in the Decameron, and in L 'Astree; she launches 
fashions, presides over salons, directs and reflects opinion. Fame and 
glory are women. "The crowd is woman," said Mallarme. In the 
company of women the young man is initiated into the "world," and 
into this complex reality called life. She is one of the privileged prizes 
promised to heroes, adventurers, and individualists. In ancient times, 
Perseus saved Andromeda, Orpheus went to rescue Eurydice from 
hades, and Troy fought to keep the beautiful Helen. Novels of 
chivalry recount barely any prowess other than delivering captive 
princesses. What would Prince Charming do if he did not wake up 
Sleeping Beauty, or lavish gifts on Donkey Skin? The myth of the 
king marrying a shepherdess flatters the man as much as the woman. 
The rich man needs to give, or else his useless wealth remains an 
abstract object: he needs someone to give to. The Cinderella myth, 
indulgently described by Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers, thrives 
in prosperous countries; it is more powerful in America than 
anywhere else because men are more embarrassed by their wealth: 
How would they spend this money for which they work their whole 
lives if they did not dedicate it to a woman? Orson Welles, among 
others, personifies the imperialism of this kind of generosity in 
Citizen Kane: Kane chooses to smother an obscure singer with gifts 
and impose her on the public as a great opera singer all for his own 
affirmation of power; in France there are plenty of small-time Citizen 
Kanes. In another film, The Razor's Edge, when the hero returns 
from India having acquired absolute wisdom, the only use he finds 
for it is to rescue a prostitute. Clearly man wants woman's 
enslavement when fantasizing himself as a benefactor, liberator, or 


redeemer; if Sleeping Beauty is to be awakened, she must be sleeping; 
to have a captive princess, there must be ogres and dragons. And the 
greater man's taste for difficult undertakings, the greater his pleasure 
in granting woman independence. Conquering is more fascinating 
than rescuing or giving. The average Western male's ideal is a woman 
who freely submits to his domination, who does not accept his ideas 
without some discussion, but who yields to his reasoning, who 
intelligently resists but yields in the end. The tougher his pride, the 
more he relishes dangerous adventure; it is far better to tame 
Penthesilea than to marry a consenting Cinderella. The "warrior" 
loves danger and plays, says Nietzsche. "For that reason he wants 
woman, as the most dangerous plaything." The man who loves 
danger and play is not displeased to see woman change into an 
Amazon as long as he keeps the hope of subjugating her: 26 what he 
demands in his heart of hearts is that this struggle remain a game for 
him, while for woman it involves her very destiny: therein lies the true 
victory for man, liberator, or conqueror — that woman freely recognize 
him as her destiny. 

Thus the expression "to have a woman" conceals a double 
meaning: the object's functions are not dissociated from those of the 
judge. The moment woman is viewed as a person, she can only be 
conquered with her consent; she must be won. Sleeping Beauty's 
smile fulfills Prince Charming: the captive princesses' tears of 
happiness and gratitude give meaning to the knights' prowess. On the 
other hand, her gaze is not a masculine, abstract, severe one — it 
allows itself to be charmed. Thus heroism and poetry are modes of 
seduction: but in letting herself be seduced, the woman exalts heroism 
and poetry. She holds an even more essential privilege for the 
individualist: she appears to him not as the measure of universally 
recognized values but as the revelation of his particular merits and of 
his very being. A man is judged by his fellow men by what he does, 
objectively and according to general standards. But certain of his 
qualities, and among others his vital qualities, can only interest 
woman; his virility, charm, seduction, tenderness, and cruelty only 
pertain to her: if he sets a value on these most secret virtues, he has an 
absolute need of her; through her he will experience the miracle of 
appearing as an other, an other who is also his deepest self. Malraux 
admirably expresses what the individualist expects from the woman 


he loves in one of his texts. Kyo wonders: 

"We hear the voices of others with our ears, our own voices with 
our throats." Yes. "One hears his own life, too, with his throat, 
and those of others?... To others, I am what I have done." To 
May alone, he was not what he had done; to him alone, she was 
something altogether different from her biography. The embrace 
by which love holds beings together against solitude did not 
bring its relief to man; it brought relief only to the madman, to 
the incomparable monster, dear above all things, that every being 
is to himself and that he cherishes in his heart. Since his mother 
had died, May was the only being for whom he was not Kyo 
Gisors, but an intimate partner . . . Men are not my kind, they are 
those who look at me and judge me; my kind are those who love 
me and do not look at me, who love me in spite of everything, 
degradation, baseness, treason — me, and not what I have done or 
shall do — who would love me as long as I would love myself — 
even to suicide. 27 

What makes Kyo's attitude human and moving is that it implies 
reciprocity and that he asks May to love him in his authenticity, not to 
send back an indulgent reflection of himself. For many men, this 
demand is diluted: instead of a truthful revelation, they seek a glowing 
image of admiration and gratitude, deified in the depths of a woman's 
two eyes. Woman has often been compared to water, in part because it 
is the mirror where the male Narcissus contemplates himself: he leans 
toward her, with good or bad faith. But in any case, what he wants 
from her is to be, outside of him, all that he cannot grasp in himself, 
because the interiority of the existent is only nothingness, and to reach 
himself, he must project himself onto an object. Woman is the 
supreme reward for him since she is his own apotheosis, a foreign 
form he can possess in the flesh. It is this "incomparable monster," 
himself, that he embraces when he holds in his arms this being who 
sums up the World and onto whom he has imposed his values and his 
laws. Uniting himself, then, with this other whom he makes his own, 
he hopes to reach himself. Treasure, prey, game, and risk, muse, 
guide, judge, mediator, mirror, the woman is the Other in which the 
subject surpasses himself without being limited, who opposes him 


without negating him; she is the Other who lets herself be annexed to 
him without ceasing to be the Other. And for this she is so necessary 
to man's joy and his triumph that if she did not exist, men would have 
had to invent her. 

They did invent her. 28 

But she also exists without their invention. This is why she is the 
failure of their dream at the same time as its incarnation. There is no 
image of woman that does not invoke the opposite figure as well: she 
is Life and Death, Nature and Artifice, Light and Night. Whatever the 
point of view, the same fluctuation is always found, because the 
inessential necessarily returns to the essential. In the figures of the 
Virgin Mother and of Beatrice lie Eve and Circe. 

"Through woman," wrote Kierkegaard, "ideality enters into life and 
what would man be without her? Many a man has become a genius 
through a young girl, . . . but none has become a genius through the 
young girl he married . . . 

"It is only by a negative relation to her that man is rendered 
productive in his ideal endeavors. Negative relations with woman can 
make us infinite . . . positive relations with woman make the man finite 
to a far greater extent." 29 This means that woman is necessary as long 
as she remains an Idea into which man projects his own 
transcendence; but she is detrimental as objective reality, existing for 
herself and limited to herself. In refusing to marry his fiancee, 
Kierkegaard believes he has established the only valid relation with 
woman. And he is right in the sense that the myth of woman posited 
as infinite Other immediately entails its opposite. 

Because she is faux Infinite, Ideal without truth, she is revealed as 
finitude and mediocrity and thus as falsehood. That is how she 
appears in Laforgue: throughout his work he expresses rancor against 
a mystification he blames on man as much as woman. Ophelia and 
Salome are nothing but "little women." Hamlet might think: "Thus 
would Ophelia have loved me as her 'possession' and because I was 
socially and morally superior to her girlish friends' possessions. And 
those little remarks about comfort and well-being that slipped out of 
her at lamp-lighting time!" Woman makes man dream, yet she is 
concerned with comfort and stews; one speaks to her about her soul, 
but she is only a body. And the lover, believing he is pursuing the 
Ideal, is the plaything of nature that uses all these mystifications for 


the ends of reproduction. She represents in reality the everydayness of 
life; she is foolishness, prudence, mediocrity, and ennui. Here is an 
example of how this is expressed, in a poem titled "Notre petite 
compagne" (Our Little Companion): 

/ have the talent of every school 
I have souls for all tastes 
Pick the flower of my faces 
Drink my mouth and not my voice 
And do not look for more: 
Not even I can see clearly 
Our loves are not equal 
For me to hold out my hand 
You are merely naive males 
I am the eternal feminine! 
My fate loses itself in the Stars! 
I am the Great Isis! 
No one has lifted my veil 
Dream only of my oases ... 

Man succeeded in enslaving woman, but in doing so, he robbed her 
of what made possession desirable. Integrated into the family and 
society, woman's magic fades rather than transfigures itself; reduced 
to a servant's condition, she is no longer the wild prey incarnating all 
of nature's treasures. Since the birth of courtly love, it has been a 
commonplace that marriage kills love. Either too scorned, too 
respected, or too quotidian, the wife is no longer a sex object. 
Marriage rites were originally intended to protect man against woman; 
she becomes his property: but everything we possess in turn 
possesses us; marriage is a servitude for the man as well; he is thus 
caught in the trap laid by nature: to have desired a lovely young girl, 
the male must spend his whole life feeding a heavy matron, a dried- 
out old woman; the delicate jewel intended to embellish his existence 
becomes an odious burden: Xanthippe is one of those types of 
women that men have always referred to with the greatest horror. 30 
But even when the woman is young, there is mystification in marriage 
because trying to socialize eroticism only succeeds in killing it. 
Eroticism implies a claim of the instant against time, of the individual 


against the collectivity; it affirms separation against communication; it 
rebels against all regulation; it contains a principle hostile to society. 
Social customs are never bent to fit the rigor of institutions and laws: 
love has forever asserted itself against them. In its sensual form it 
addresses young people and courtesans in Greece and Rome; both 
carnal and platonic, courtly love is always directed at another's wife. 
Tristan is the epic of adultery. The period around 1900 that re-creates 
the myth of the woman is one where adultery becomes the theme of 
all literature. Certain writers, like Bernstein, in the supreme defense of 
bourgeois institutions, struggle to reintegrate eroticism and love into 
marriage; but there is more truth in Porto-Riche's Amoureuse (A 
Loving Wife), which shows the incompatibility of these two types of 
values. Adultery can disappear only with marriage itself. For the aim 
of marriage is to immunize man against his own wife: but other 
women still have a dizzying effect on him; it is to them he will turn. 
Women are accomplices. For they rebel against an order that tries to 
deprive them of their weapons. So as to tear woman from nature, so 
as to subjugate her to man through ceremonies and contracts, she was 
elevated to the dignity of a human person; she was granted freedom. 
But freedom is precisely what escapes all servitude; and if it is 
bestowed on a being originally possessed by malevolent forces, it 
becomes dangerous. And all the more so as man stopped at half 
measures; he accepted woman into the masculine world only by 
making her a servant, in thwarting her transcendence; the freedom she 
was granted could only have a negative use; it only manifests itself in 
refusal. Woman became free only in becoming captive; she renounces 
this human privilege to recover her power as natural object. By day 
she treacherously plays her role of docile servant, but by night she 
changes into a kitten, a doe; she slips back into a siren's skin, or 
riding on her broomstick, she makes her satanic rounds. Sometimes 
she exercises her nocturnal magic on her own husband; but it is wiser 
to conceal her metamorphoses from her master; she chooses strangers 
as her prey; they have no rights over her, and she remains for them a 
plant, wellspring, star, or sorceress. So there she is, fated to infidelity: 
it is the only concrete form her freedom could assume. She is 
unfaithful over and above her own desires, her thoughts, or her 
consciousness; because she is seen as an object, she is given up to 
any subjectivity that chooses to take her; it is still not sure that locked 


in harems, hidden behind veils, she does not arouse desire in some 
person: to inspire desire in a stranger is already to fail her husband 
and society. But worse, she is often an accomplice in this fate; it is 
only through lies and adultery that she can prove that she is nobody's 
thing, that she refutes male claims on her. This is why man's jealousy 
is so quick to awaken, and in legends woman can be suspected 
without reason, condemned on the least suspicion, as were Genevieve 
de Brabant and Desdemona; even before any suspicion, Griselda is 
subjected to the worst trials; this tale would be absurd if the woman 
were not suspected beforehand; there is no case presented against her: 
it is up to her to prove her innocence. This is also why jealousy can be 
insatiable; it has already been shown that possession can never be 
positively realized; even if all others are forbidden to draw from the 
spring, no one possesses the thirst-quenching spring: the jealous one 
knows this well. In essence, woman is inconstant, just as water is 
fluid; and no human force can contradict a natural truth. Throughout 
all literature, in The Thousand and One Nights as in the Decameron, 
woman's ruses triumph over man's prudence. But it is more than 
simply individualistic will that makes him a jailer: society itself, in the 
form of father, brother, and husband, makes him responsible for the 
woman's behavior. Chastity is imposed upon her for economic and 
religious reasons, every citizen having to be authenticated as the son 
of his own father. But it is also very important to compel woman to 
conform exactly to the role society devolves on her. Man's double 
demand condemns woman to duplicity: he wants the woman to be his 
own and yet to remain foreign to him; he imagines her as servant and 
sorceress at the same time. But he admits publicly only to the former 
desire; the latter is a deceitful demand hidden in the depths of his heart 
and flesh; it goes against morality and society; it is evil like the Other, 
like rebel Nature, like the "bad woman." Man is not wholly devoted to 
the Good he constructs and attempts to impose; he maintains a 
shameful connivance with the Bad. But whenever the Bad 
imprudently dares to show its face openly, he goes to war against it. 
In the darkness of night, man invites woman to sin. But in the light of 
day, he rejects sin and her, the sinner. And women, sinners 
themselves in the mysteries of the bed, show all the more passion for 
the public worship of virtue. Just as in primitive society the male sex 
is secular and woman's is laden with religious and magic qualities, 


today's modern societies consider man's failings harmless 
peccadilloes; they are often lightly dismissed; even if he disobeys 
community laws, the man continues to belong to it; he is merely an 
enfant terrible, not a profound threat to the collective order. If, on the 
other hand, the woman deviates from society, she returns to Nature 
and the devil, she triggers uncontrollable and evil forces within the 
group. Fear has always been mixed with the blame for licentious 
behavior. If the husband cannot keep his wife virtuous, he shares her 
fault; his misfortune is, in society's eyes, a dishonor, and there are 
civilizations so strict that it is necessary to kill the criminal to 
dissociate him from her crime. In others, the complaisant husband will 
be punished by noisy demonstrations or led around naked on a 
donkey. And the community will take it upon itself to punish the 
guilty woman in his place: because she offended the group as a whole 
and not only her husband. These customs were particularly brutal in 
superstitious and mystical Spain, sensual and terrorized by the flesh. 
Calderon, Lorca, and Valle-Inclan made it the theme of many plays. In 
Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba the village gossips want to 
punish the seduced young girl by burning her with live coal "in the 
place where she sinned." In Valle-Inclan 's Divine Words , the 
adulteress appears as a witch who dances with the devil: her fault 
discovered, the whole village assembles to tear off her clothes and 
drown her. Many traditions reported that the sinner was stripped; then 
she was stoned, as told in the Gospel, and she was buried alive, 
drowned, or burned. The meaning of these tortures is that she was 
thus returned to Nature after being deprived of her social dignity; by 
her sin she had released bad natural emanations: the expiation was 
carried out as a kind of sacred orgy where the women stripped, beat, 
and massacred the guilty one, releasing in turn their mysterious but 
beneficial fluids since they were acting in accordance with society. 

This savage severity fades as superstitions diminish and fear 
dissipates. But in the countryside, godless and homeless bohemian 
women are still regarded with suspicion. The woman who freely 
exercises her charms — adventuress, vamp, femme fatale — remains a 
disquieting type. In Hollywood films the Circe image survives as the 
bad woman. Women were burned as witches simply because they 
were beautiful. And in the prudish intimidation of provincial virtues, 
the old specter of dissolute women is perpetuated. 


These very dangers make woman captivating game for an 
adventurous man. Disregarding his rights as a husband, refusing to 
uphold society's laws, he will try to conquer her in single combat. He 
tries to annex the woman, including her resistance; he pursues in her 
the same freedom through which she escapes him. In vain. Freedom 
cannot be carved up: the free woman will often be free at the expense 
of man. Sleeping Beauty might wake up with displeasure, she might 
not recognize her Prince Charming in the one who awakens her, she 
might not smile. This is precisely the case of Citizen Kane, whose 
protegee is seen to be oppressed and whose generosity is revealed to 
be a will for power and tyranny; the hero's wife listens to his exploits 
indifferently, the Muse yawns, listening to the verses of the poet who 
dreams of her. Out of boredom, the Amazon can refuse combat; and 
she can also emerge victorious. Roman women of the decadence, and 
many American women today, impose their whims or their law on 
men. Where is Cinderella? The man wanted to give, and here is the 
woman taking. No longer a game, it is a question of self-defense. 
From the moment the woman is free, her only destiny is one she 
freely creates for herself. So the relation between the two sexes is a 
relation of struggle. Having become a peer to man, she seems as 
formidable as when she faced him as foreign Nature. The female 
nurturer, devoted and patient, turns into an avid and devouring beast. 
The bad woman also sets her roots in the earth, in Life; but the earth is 
a grave, and life a bitter combat: so the myth of the industrious 
honeybee or mother hen is replaced by the devouring insect, the 
praying mantis, the spider; the woman is no longer the one who 
nurses her young but the one who eats the male; the egg is no longer 
the storehouse of abundance but a trap of inert matter drowning the 
mutilated spermatozoid; the womb, that warm, peaceful, and safe 
haven, becomes the rank octopus, the carnivorous plant, abyss of 
convulsive darkness; within it lives a serpent that insatiably swallows 
the male's strength. Such a dialectic turns the erotic object into female 
black magic, turns the female servant into a traitor, Cinderella into a 
witch, and changes all women into the enemy: here is the ransom man 
pays for having posited himself in bad faith as the sole essential. 

But this enemy face is not woman's definitive form either. Instead, 
Manichaeism is introduced within the feminine kind. Pythagoras 
linked the good principle to man and the bad principle to woman; men 


have tried to overcome the bad by annexing woman; they have been 
partially successful; but just as Christianity, by introducing the ideas 
of redemption and salvation, gave its full sense to the word 
"damnation," the bad woman stands out in opposition to the sanctified 
woman. In the course of this querelle des femmes, which has endured 
from the Middle Ages to our times, some men only want to see the 
blessed woman they dream of, while others want the cursed woman 
who belies their dreams. But in fact, if man can find everything in 
woman, it is because she has both faces. In a carnal and living way, 
she represents all the values and anti-values that give life meaning. 
Here, clear-cut, we have the good and the Bad, in opposition to each 
other in the guise of devoted Mother and perfidious Lover; in the Old 
English ballad "Lord Randal," a young knight dies in his mother's 
arms, poisoned by his mistress. Richepin's La glu (The Leech) takes 
up the same theme, but with more pathos and bad taste. Angelic 
Michaela is contrasted with dark Carmen. The mother, the faithful 
fiancee, and the patient wife provide healing to the wounds inflicted 
on men's hearts by vamps and witches. Between these clearly fixed 
poles a multitude of ambiguous figures were yet to be defined, the 
pitiful, the detestable, sinners, victims, coquettes, the weak, the 
angelic, the devilish. A multitude of behaviors and feelings thereby 
solicit man and enrich him. 

The very complexity of woman enchants him: here is a wonderful 
servant who can excite him at little expense. Is she angel or devil? 
Uncertainty makes her a sphinx. One of the most famous brothels of 
Paris was placed under its aegis. In the grand epoch of Femininity, in 
the time of corsets, of Paul Bourget, of Henry Bataille, and of the 
French cancan, the sphinx theme is all the rage in comedies, poems, 
and songs: "Who are you, where do you come from, strange sphinx?" 
And dreams and queries about the feminine mystery continue still. To 
preserve this mystery, men have long implored women not to give up 
their long dresses, petticoats, veils, long gloves, and high boots: 
whatever accentuates difference in the Other makes them more 
desirable, since it is the Other as such that man wants to possess. In 
his letters, Alain-Fournier reproaches English women for their boyish 
handshake: French women's modest reserve flusters him. Woman 
must remain secret, unknown, to be adored as a faraway princess; 
Fournier seems not to have been terribly deferential to the women 


who entered his life, but it is in a woman, whose main virtue was to 
seem inaccessible, that he incarnates all the wonder of childhood, of 
youth, the nostalgia for a lost paradise. In Yvonne de Galais he traced 
a white and gold image. But men cherish even feminine defects if they 
create mystery. "A woman must have her caprices," said a man 
authoritatively to a reasonable woman. Caprices are unpredictable; 
they lend woman the grace of undulating water; lying embellishes her 
with glittering reflections; coquetry, even perversity, is her 
intoxicating perfume. Deceitful, evasive, misunderstood, duplicitous, 
it is thus that she best lends herself to men's contradictory desires; she 
is Maya of the innumerable metamorphoses. It is a commonplace to 
represent the Sphinx as a young woman: virginity is one of the secrets 
that men — and all the more so if they are libertines — find the most 
disconcerting; a young girl's purity gives hope for all kinds of license, 
and no one knows what perversities are concealed beneath her 
innocence; still close to animal and plant, already compliant with 
social rites, she is neither child nor adult; her timid femininity does not 
inspire fear, but mild unrest. It is understandable that she is one of the 
privileged figures of the feminine mystery. But as the "real young 
lady" fades, worshipping her has become a bit outdated. On the other 
hand, the prostitute's character that Gantillon, in his triumphantly 
successful play, gave to Maya still has a great deal of prestige. She is 
one of the most flexible of feminine types, one that best allows the 
great game of vices and virtues. For the timorous puritan, she 
embodies evil, shame, disease, and damnation; she inspires horror and 
disgust; she belongs to no man, but gives herself to all of them and 
lives on the trade; therein she regains the fearsome independence of 
lewd primitive Goddess Mothers, and she embodies the Femininity 
that masculine society has not sanctified, that remains rife with 
malevolent powers; in the sexual act, the male cannot imagine that he 
possesses her, he is only given over to demons of the flesh, a 
humiliation, a stain particularly felt by Anglo-Saxons in whose eyes 
the flesh is more or less reviled. On the other hand, a man who is not 
frightened by the flesh will love the prostitute's generous and 
rudimentary affirmation; in her he will see exalted femininity that no 
morality has diminished; he will find in her body again those magic 
virtues that in the past made the woman kin to the stars and the sea: a 
Henry Miller, sleeping with a prostitute, feels he has dived into the 


very depths of life, death, the cosmos; he meets God in the moist 
shadows of the receptive vagina. Because she is on the margins of a 
hypocritically moral world, a sort of pariah, the "lost girl" can be 
regarded as the challenger of all official virtues; her indignity relates 
her to authentic saints; for the oppressed shall be exalted; Christ 
looked upon Mary Magdalene with favor; sin opens the gates of 
heaven more easily than hypocritical virtue. Thus Raskolnikov 
sacrificed, at Sonya's feet, the arrogant masculine pride that led him to 
crime; murder exacerbated this will for separation that is in all men: 
resigned, abandoned by all, a humble prostitute is best suited to 
receive his vow of abdication. 31 The words "lost girl" awaken 
disturbing echoes; many men dream of losing themselves: it is not so 
easy, one does not easily attain Evil in a positive form; and even the 
demoniac is frightened by excessive crimes; the woman enables the 
celebration of the black masses, where Satan is evoked without 
exactly being invited; she is on the margin of the masculine world: 
acts that concern her are really without consequence; yet she is a 
human being, and through her, dark revolts against human laws can 
be carried out. From Musset to Georges Bataille, visiting "girls" was 
hideous and fascinating debauchery. Sade and Sacher-Masoch 
satisfied their haunting desires; their disciples, and most men who had 
to satisfy their "vices," commonly turned to prostitutes. Of all women, 
they were the ones who were the most subjected to the male, and yet 
the ones who best escaped him; this is what makes them likely to take 
on numerous meanings. There is, however, no feminine figure — 
virgin, mother, wife, sister, servant, lover, fierce virtue, smiling 
odalisque — capable of encapsulating the inconstant yearnings of men. 

It is for psychology — specifically psychoanalysis — to discover 
why an individual is drawn more particularly to one aspect or another 
of the multi-faceted Myth and why he incarnates it in any one 
particular form. But this myth is involved in all complexes, 
obsessions, and psychoses. In particular, many neuroses are rooted in 
the vertigo of prohibition: and this vertigo can only emerge if taboos 
have previously been established; external social pressure is not 
enough to explain its presence; in fact, social prohibitions are not 
simply conventions; they have — among other significations — an 
ontological meaning that each individual experiences in his own way. 
For example, it is interesting to examine the Oedipus complex; it is 


too often considered as being produced by a struggle between 
instinctive tendencies and social directives; but it is first of all an 
interior conflict within the subject himself. The infant's attachment to 
the mother's breast is first an attachment to Life in its immediate form, 
in its generality and its immanence; the rejection of weaning is the 
rejection of the abandonment to which the individual is condemned 
once he is separated from the Whole; from then on, and as he 
becomes more individualized and separated, the taste he retains for the 
mother's flesh now torn from his own can be termed "sexual"; his 
sensuality is thus mediated, it has become transcendence to ward a 
foreign object. But the sooner and more decidedly the child assumes 
itself as subject, the more the carnal bond that challenges his 
autonomy will become problematic for him. So he shuns his mother's 
caresses; his mother's authority, the rights she has over him, even her 
very presence, inspire a kind of shame in him. Particularly he finds it 
embarrassing and obscene to be aware of her as flesh, and he avoids 
thinking of her body; in the horror that he feels toward his father or a 
second husband or a lover, there is less jealousy than scandal; to be 
reminded that his mother is a carnal being is to be reminded of his 
own birth, an event he repudiates with all his force; or at least he 
wishes to give it the majesty of a great cosmic phenomenon; he thinks 
that Nature, which invests all individuals but belongs to none, should 
be contained in his mother; he hates her to become prey, not — as it is 
often presumed — because he wants to possess her himself, but 
because he wants her to exist above all possession: she must not have 
the ordinary features of wife or mistress. When in adolescence, 
however, his sexuality becomes virile, his mother's body begins to 
disturb him; but it is because he grasps femininity in general in her; 
and often the desire aroused by the sight of her thigh or her breast 
disappears as soon as the young boy realizes that this flesh is maternal 
flesh. There are many cases of perversion, since adolescence, being 
the age of confusion, is the age of perversion where disgust leads to 
sacrilege, where temptation is born from the forbidden. But it must 
not be thought that the son naively wishes to sleep with his mother 
and that exterior prohibitions interfere and oppress him; on the 
contrary, desire is born because this prohibition is constituted within 
the heart of the individual himself. This censure is the most normal, 
the most general reaction. But there again, it does not arise from social 


regulation masking instinctive desires. Rather, respect is the 
sublimation of an original disgust; the young man refuses to regard 
his mother as carnal; he transfigures her, he associates her with one of 
the pure images of the sacred woman society offers. This is how he 
helps strengthen the image of the ideal Mother who will save the next 
generation. But this image has such force only because it emanates 
from an individual dialectic. And since every woman is inhabited by 
the general essence of Woman, thus Mother, it is certain that the 
attitude to the Mother will have repercussions in his relations with 
wife and mistress; but less simply than is often imagined. The 
adolescent who has concretely and sensually desired his mother may 
have desired woman in general in her: and the fervor of his 
temperament will be appeased with any woman, no matter who; he is 
not doomed to incestuous nostalgia. 32 On the other hand, a young 
man who has had a tender but platonic respect for his mother may in 
every case wish for woman to be part of maternal purity. 

The importance of sexuality, and therefore ordinarily of woman, in 
both pathological and normal behavior is well-known. Other objects 
can also be feminized; because woman is certainly to a large extent 
man's invention, he could also invent her in the male body: in 
homosexuality, sexual division is maintained. But ordinarily Woman 
is sought in feminine beings. Through her, through the best and the 
worst of her, man learns happiness, suffering, vice and virtue, lust, 
renunciation, devotion, and tyranny, and learns about himself; she is 
play and adventure, but also contest; she is the triumph of victory and, 
more bitter, of failure overcome; she is the giddiness of loss, the 
fascination of damnation, of death. There is a world of significations 
that exist only through woman; she is the substance of men's actions 
and feelings, the embodiment of all the values that seek their freedom. 
It is understandable that even if he were condemned to the cruelest 
disavowals, man would not want to relinquish a dream containing all 
other dreams. 

Here, then, is why woman has a double and deceptive image: she is 
everything he craves and everything he does not attain. She is the 
wise mediator between auspicious Nature and man; and she is the 
temptation of Nature, untamed against all reason. She is the carnal 
embodiment of all moral values and their opposites, from good to bad; 
she is the stuff of action and its obstacle, man's grasp on the world 


and his failure; as such she is the source of all man's reflection on his 
existence and all expression he can give of it; however, she works to 
divert him from himself, to make him sink into silence and death. As 
his servant and companion, man expects her also to be his public and 
his judge, to confirm him in his being; but she opposes him with her 
indifference, even with her mockery and her laughter. He projects 
onto her what he desires and fears, what he loves and what he hates. 
And if it is difficult to say anything about her, it is because man seeks 
himself entirely in her and because she is All. But she is All in that 
which is inessential: she is wholly the Other. And as other she is also 
other than herself, other than what is expected of her. Being all, she is 
never exactly this that she should be; she is everlasting 
disappointment, the very disappointment of existence that never 
successfully attains or reconciles itself with the totality of existents. 

1. "Woman is not the useless repetition of man but the enchanted space where the 
living alliance of man and nature occurs. If she disappeared, men would be alone, 
foreigners without passports in a glacial world. She is earth itself carried to life's 
summit, the earth become sensitive and joyful; and without her, for man, earth is mute 
and dead," wrote Michel Carrouges in "Les pouvoirs de la femme" (Woman's Powers), 
Cahiers du Slid, no. 292 (1948). 

2. Stages on Life 's Way. 

3. "Of Gaea sing I, Mother firm of all, the eldest one, who feedeth life on earth, 
whichever walk on land or swim the seas, or fly," says a Homeric hymn. Aeschylus also 
glorifies the earth that "gives birth to all beings, nourishes them, and then receives the 
fertilized germ once again." 

4. "To the letter the woman is Isis, fertile nature. She is the river and the bed of the 
river, the root and the rose, the earth and the cherry tree, the vine and the grape" (M. 
Carrouges, "Woman's Powers"). 

5. See our study on Montherlant, the epitome of this attitude, a little further on. 

6. Demeter is the archetype of the mater dolorosa. But other goddesses — Ishtar and 
Artemis — are cruel. Kali is holding a blood-filled skull. "The heads of your newly 
killed sons hang from your neck like a necklace ... Your figure is beautiful like rain 
clouds, your feet are soiled with blood," says a Hindu poem. 

7 .Metamorphoses of the Libido. 

8. The difference between mystical and mythical beliefs and individuals' lived 


convictions is apparent in the following fact: Levi-Strauss points out that "young 
Winnebago Indians visit their mistresses and take advantage of the privacy of the 
prescribed isolation of these women during their menstrual period." 

9. A doctor from the Cher region pointed out to me that women in that situation are 
banned from going into the mushroom beds. The question as to whether there is any 
basis for these preconceived ideas is still discussed today. Dr. Binet's only fact 
supporting them is an observation by Schink (cited by Vignes). Schink supposedly 
saw flowers wilt in an indisposed servant's hands; yeast cakes made by this woman 
supposedly rose only three centimeters instead of the five they usually rose. In any 
case, these facts are pretty feeble and poorly established when considering the 
importance and universality of the obviously mystical beliefs they come from. 

10. Quoted in Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship . 

1 1. The moon is a source of fertility; it is seen as the "master of women"; it is often 
believed that the moon, in the form of a man or a snake, couples with women. The 
snake is an epiphany of the moon; it molts and regenerates, it is immortal, it is a power 
that distributes fertility and science; it watches over holy sources, the Tree of Life, the 
Fountain of Youth, and so on, but it is also the snake that takes immortality away from 
man. It is said that it couples with women. Persian and rabbinical traditions claim that 
menstruation is due to the first woman's intercourse with the snake. 

12. Rabelais called the male sex "the worker of nature." The religious and historical 
origin of the phallus-plowshare-woman-furrow association has already been pointed 

13. The power in combat attributed to the virgin comes from this: the Valkyries and 
Joan of Arc, for example. 

14. The sentence by Samivel, quoted by Bachelard in Earth and Reveries of Will, is 
telling: "I had ceased, little by little, to regard the mountains crouching in a circle at 
my feet as foes to vanquish, as females to trample underfoot, or trophies to provide 
myself and others proof of my own worth." The mountain/woman ambivalence comes 
across in the common idea of "foes to vanquish," "trophies," and "proof of my own 

This reciprocity can be seen, for example, in these two poems by Senghor: 

Naked woman, dark woman 

Ripe fruit with firm flesh, dark raptures of 

black wine, Mouth that gives music to my mouth 

Savanna of clear horizons, savanna quivering to the fervent caress 

Of the East Wind ... 



Oho! Congo, lying on your bed of forests, queen of subdued Africa. 

May the mountain phalluses hold high your pavilion 

For you are woman by my head, by my tongue, You are woman by my belly. 

15. "Hottentot women, in whom steatopygia is neither as developed nor as consistent 
as in Bushman women, think this body type is aesthetically pleasing and starting in 
childhood massage their daughters' buttocks to develop them. Likewise, the artificial 
fattening of women, a real stuffing by two means, immobility and abundant ingestion 
of specific foods, especially milk, is found in various regions of Africa. It is still 
practiced by rich Arab and Jewish city dwellers in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco" 
(Luquet, "Venus des cavernes," Journal de Psychologie, 1934). 

* Most likely: Post coitum omne animal triste. ("All animals are sad after sex.") — 

1 6. For example, in Prevert's ballet Le rendez-vous and in Cocteau's Le jeune homme et 
la mort (The Young Man and Death), Death is represented as a beloved young girl. 

17. Until the end of the twelfth century theologians — except Saint Anselm — thought, 
according to Saint Augustine's doctrine, that original sin was implied in the law of 
generation itself. "Concupiscence is a vice ... human flesh born from it is sinful flesh," 
wrote Saint Augustine. And Saint Thomas: "Since sin, the union of the sexes, when 
accompanied by concupiscence, transmits original sin to the child." 

* "Atemple built overa sewer." — TRANS. 

f "We are born between shit and piss." — TRANS. 

1 8. We demonstrated that the myth of the praying mantis has no biological basis. 

19. This explains the privileged place she holds, for example, in ClaudePs work (see 
pp. 237-246). 

20. One ought to quote Michel Leiris's poem "La mere" (The Mother) in its entirety. 
Here are some typical passages: 

The mother in black, mauve, violet — robber of nights — that 's the sorceress whose 
hidden industry brings you into the world, the one who rocks you, coddles you, 
coffins you, when she doesn 't abandon her curled-up body — one last little toy — 
into your hands, that lay it nicely into the coffin ... 

The mother — blind statue, fate set up in the middle of the inviolate sanctuary — 
she's nature caressing you, the wind censing you, the whole world that 
penetrates you, lifts you sky-high (borne on multiple spires) and rots you ... 

The mother — young or old, beautiful or ugly, merciful or obstinate — it's the 


caricature, the monster jealous woman, the fallen Prototype — assuming the Idea 
(a wrinkled Pythia perched on the tripod of her austere capital letter) — is but a 
parody of quick, light, iridescent thoughts ... 

The mother — hip round or dry, breast atremble or firm — is the decline 
promised to all women right from the start, the progressive crumbling of the rock 
that sparkles beneath the menstrual flood, the slow burying — under the sand of 
the old desert — of the luxuriant caravan heaped with beauty. 

The mother — angel of spying death, of the embracing universe, of the love 
time s wave throws back — she's the shell with its senseless graphics (a sure sign 
of poison) to toss into the deep pools, generator of circles for the oblivious 

The mother — somber puddle, eternally in mourning for everything and 
ourselves — she is the misty pestilence that shimmers and bursts, expanding its 
great bestial shadow (shame of flesh and milk) bubble by bubble, a stiff veil that 
a bolt of lightning as yet unborn ought to rend ... 

Will it ever occur to any of these innocent bitches to drag themselves barefoot 
through the centuries as pardon for this crime: having given birth to us? 
[Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic. — TRANS.] 

2 1 . See note 1 5, this page. 

22. It is allegoric in Claudel's shameful recent poem, where Indochina is called "That 
yellow girl"; it is affectionate, by contrast, in the verses of the black poet [Guy 

Soul of the black country where the elders sleep 

live and speak 


in the uneasy strength along your hollow loins. 

23. Jotted down at the theater. 

* Translated by James Lawler. — TRANS. 

24. Philology is rather mysterious on this question; all linguists recognize that the 
distribution of concrete words into gender is purely accidental. Yet in French most 
entities are feminine: beauty and loyalty, for example. And in German, most imported 
foreign words, others, are feminine: die Bar, for instance. 

25. It goes without saying that they, of course, demonstrate intellectual qualities 
perfectly identical to those of men. 

26. American detective novels — or American-style ones — are a striking example. Peter 


Cheyney's heroes, for instance, are always grappling with an extremely dangerous 
woman, unmanageable for anyone but them: after a duel that unfolds all through the 
novel, she is finally overcome by Campion or Callaghan and falls into his arms. 
21 .La condition humaine (Man 's Fate). 

28. "Man created woman — but what out of? Out of a rib of his God, of his 'ideal' " 
(Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols). 
29. In Vino Veritas. 

30. As we have seen, it was the theme of many lamentations in Greece and during the 
Middle Ages. 

3 1 . Marcel Schwob poetically renders this myth in Le livre de Monelle (The Book of 

I will speak to you of the Little Women of Pleasure that you may know of the 
beginning ... For you see, these little women call out to you ... they utter a cry of 
compassion, and they hold your hand in their emaciated hands. They only 
understand you when you are unhappy; they can cry with you and console 
you ... None of them may stay long with you. They would be too sad and too 
ashamed to remain. When you no longer weep, you have no need of them. They 
teach you the lesson they have learned from you, then they flee. They come 
through the cold and the rain to kiss your brow, to brush their lips across your 
eyes, to drive from you the terror and the sadness that you know . . . You must not 
think of what they do in the shadows. 

32. Stendhal is a striking example. 



In order to confirm this analysis of the feminine myth, as it is 
collectively presented, we will look at the singular and syncretic form 
it takes on in certain writers. The attitude to women seems typical in, 
among others, Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Claudel, Breton, and 


Montherlant belongs to the long male tradition of adopting the 
arrogant Manichaeism of Pythagoras. Following Nietzsche, he belives 
that the Eternal Feminine was exalted only during periods of 
weakness and that the hero has to rise up against the Magna Mater. 
As a specialist in heroism, he has undertaken the task of dislodging 
her. Woman is night, disorder, and immanence. "These convulsive 
shadows are nothing more than 'the feminine in its pure state,' " he 
writes about Mme Tolstoy. 1 The stupidity and baseness of men today, 
he thinks, give a positive image of feminine deficiencies: the feminine 
instinct, feminine intuition, and women's clairvoyance are spoken 
about, while their absence of logic, stubborn ignorance, and inability 
to grasp the real should be denounced; they are neither good 
observers nor psychologists; they neither know how to see things nor 
understand human beings; their mystery is a trap, their unfathomable 
treasures have the depth of nothingness; they have nothing to give 
man and can only harm him. For Montherlant the mother is the first 
major enemy; in L'exil (Exile), an early play of his, he depicts a 
mother who keeps her son from enlisting; mLes Olympiques, the 
teenager who wants to devote himself to sport is barred by his 
mother's fearful egotism; in Les celibataires {The Bachelors) and in 
Les jeunes filles (The Girls), the mother is vilified. Her crime is to 
want to keep her son locked up forever in her womb's depths; she 
mutilates him to make him her own and thus to fill up the sterile 
vacuum of her being; she is the worst educator; she cuts the child's 


wings; she pulls him back from the heights he aspires to; she turns 
him into a moron and diminishes him. These reproaches are not 
without some basis. But it is clear from the explicit criticisms that 
Montherlant addresses to woman-mother that what he hates in her is 
his own birth. He thinks he is God; he wants to be God: because he is 
male, because he is a "superior man," because he is Montherlant. A 
god is not engendered; his body, if he has one, is a will molded in 
hard and disciplined muscles, not in flesh mutely inhabited by life and 
death; this flesh that he repudiates is perishable, contingent, and 
vulnerable and is his mother's fault. "The only part of Achilles' body 
that was vulnerable was the part his mother had held." 2 
Montherlant never wanted to assume the human condition; what he 
calls his pride is, from the beginning, a panicked flight from the risks 
contained in a freedom engaged in the world through flesh; he claims 
to affirm freedom but to refuse engagement; without ties, without 
roots, he dreams he is a subjectivity majestically withdrawn upon 
itself; the memory of his carnal origins disturbs this dream, and he 
resorts to a familiar process: instead of prevailing over it, he 
repudiates it. 

For Montherlant, the woman lover is just as harmful as the mother; 
she prevents man from resurrecting the god in himself; woman's lot, 
he says, is life in its most immediate form, woman lives on feelings, 
she wallows in immanence; she has a mania for happiness: she wants 
to trap man in it; she does not experience the elan of her 
transcendence, she does not have the sense of grandeur; she loves her 
lover in his weakness and not in his strength, in his troubles and not 
in his joys; she would like him defenseless, so unhappy as to try to 
convince him of his misery regardless of any proof to the contrary. 
He surpasses and thus escapes her: she means to reduce him to her 
size to take him over. Because she needs him, she is not self- 
sufficient; she is a parasite. Through Dominique's eyes, Montherlant 
portrayed the promenading women of Ranelagh, women "hanging on 
their lovers' arms like beings without backbones, like big disguised 
slugs"; 3 except for sportswomen, women are incomplete beings, 
doomed to slavery; soft and lacking muscle, they have no grasp on the 
world; thus they fiercely work to annex a lover or, even better, a 
husband. Montherlant, to my knowledge, did not use the praying 
mantis myth, but the content is there: for woman, to love is to devour; 


she pretends to give of herself, and she takes. He quotes Mme 
Tolstoy's cry: "I live through him, for him; I demand the same thing 
for myself," and he denounces the dangers of such a furious love; he 
finds a terrible truth in Ecclesiastes: A man who wants to hurt you is 
better than a woman who wants to help you. He invokes Lyautey's 
experience: "A man of mine who marries is reduced to half a man." 
He deems marriage to be even worse for a "superior man"; it is a 
ridiculous conformism to bourgeois values; could you imagine 
saying: "Mrs. Aeschylus," or "I'm having dinner at the Dantes' "? A 
great man's prestige is weakened; and even more, marriage shatters 
the hero's magnificent solitude; he "needs not to be distracted from 
his own self." 4 

I have already said that Montherlant has chosen a freedom without 
object; that is, he prefers an illusion of autonomy to an authentic 
freedom engaged in the world; it is this availability that he means to 
use against woman; she is heavy, she is a burden. "It was a harsh 
symbol that a man could not walk straight because the woman he 
loved was on his arm." 5 

"I was burning, she puts out the fire. I was walking on water, she 
takes my arm, I sink." 6 

How does she have so much power since she is only lack, poverty, 
and negativity and her magic is illusory? Montherlant does not explain 
it. He simply and proudly says that "the lion rightly fears the 
mosquito." 7 

But the answer is obvious: it is easy to believe one is sovereign 
when alone, to believe oneself strong when carefully refusing to bear 
any burden. Montherlant has chosen ease; he claims to worship 
difficult values: but he seeks to attain them easily. "The crowns we 
give ourselves are the only ones worth being worn," says the king in 
Pasiphae. How easy. Montherlant overloaded his brow, draping it 
with purple, but an outsider's look was enough to show that his 
diadems were papier-mache and that, like Hans Christian Andersen's 
emperor, he was naked. Walking on water in a dream was far less 
tiring than moving forward on earthly land in reality. And this is why 
Montherlant the lion avoided the feminine mosquito with terror: he is 
afraid to be tested by the real. 8 

If Montherlant had really deflated the Eternal Feminine myth, he 


would have to be congratulated: women can be helped to assume 
themselves as human beings by denying the Woman. But he did not 
smash the idol, as has been shown: he converted it into a monster. He 
too believed in this obscure and irreducible essence: femininity; like 
Aristotle and Saint Thomas, he believed it was defined negatively; 
woman was woman through a lack of virility; that is the destiny any 
female individual has to undergo without being able to modify it. 
Whoever claims to escape it places herself on the lowest rung of the 
human ladder: she does not manage to become man, she gives up 
being woman; she is merely a pathetic caricature, a sham; that she 
might be a body and a consciousness does not provide her with any 
reality: Platonist when it suited him, Montherlant seems to believe that 
only the Ideas of femininity and virility possessed being; the 
individual who partakes of neither has only an appearance of 
existence. He irrevocably condemns these "vampires" who dare to 
posit themselves as autonomous subjects, dare to think and act. And 
he intends to prove through his depiction of Andree Hacquebaut that 
any woman endeavoring to make herself a person would be changed 
into a grimacing marionette. Andree is, of course, ugly, ungainly, 
badly dressed, and even dirty, with dubious nails and forearms: the 
little culture she is granted is enough to kill all her femininity; Costals 
assures us she is intelligent, but with every page devoted to her, 
Montherlant convinces us of her stupidity; Costals claims he feels 
sympathy for her; Montherlant renders her obnoxious. Through this 
clever equivocation, the idiocy of feminine intelligence is proven, and 
an original fall perverting all the virile qualities to which women 
aspire is established. 

Montherlant is willing to make an exception for sportswomen; they 
can acquire a spirit, a soul, thanks to the autonomous exercise of their 
body; yet it was easy to bring them down from these heights; he 
delicately moves away from the thousand-meter winner to whom he 
devoted an enthusiastic hymn; knowing he could easily seduce her, he 
wanted to spare her this disgrace. Alban calls her to the top, but 
Dominique does not remain there; she falls in love with him: "She 
who had been all spirit and all soul sweated, gave off body odours, 
and out of breath, she cleared her throat." 9 Alban chases her away, 
indignant. If a woman kills the flesh in her through the discipline of 
sports, she can still be esteemed; but an autonomous existence molded 


in a woman's flesh is a repulsive scandal; feminine flesh is abhorrent 
the moment a consciousness inhabits it. What is suitable for woman is 
to be purely flesh. Montherlant approves the Oriental attitude: as an 
object of pleasure, the weak sex has a place — modest, of course, but 
worthwhile — on earth; the pleasure it gives man justifies it, and that 
pleasure alone. The ideal woman is totally stupid and totally 
subjugated; she is always willing to welcome the man and never ask 
anything of him. Such was Douce, and Alban likes her when it is 
convenient: "Douce, admirably silly and always lusted after the sillier 
she is ... useless outside of love and thus firmly but sweetly 
avoided." 10 

Such is Rhadidja, the little Arab woman, a quiet beast of love who 
docilely accepts pleasure and money. This "feminine beast" met on a 
Spanish train can thus be imagined: "She looked so idiotic that I 
began to desire her." 1 1 

The author explains: "What is irritating in women is their claim to 
reason; if they exaggerate their animality, they border on the 
superhuman." 12 

However, Montherlant is in no way an Oriental sultan; in the first 
place, he does not have the sensuality. He is far from delighting in 
"feminine beasts" without ulterior motives; they are "sick, nasty, 
never really clean"; 13 

Costals admits that young boys' hair smelled stronger and better 
than women's; Solange sometimes makes him feel sick, her "cloying, 
almost disgusting, smell, and this body without muscles, without 
nerves, like a white slug." 14 

He dreams of more worthy embraces, between equals, where 
gentleness was born of vanquished strength . . . The Oriental relishes 
woman voluptuously, thereby bringing about carnal reciprocity 
between lovers: the ardent invocations of the Song of Songs, the tales 
of The Thousand and One Nights, and so much other Arab poetry 
attest to the glory of the beloved; naturally, there are bad women; but 
there are also delicious ones, and sensual man lets himself go into 
their arms confidently, without feeling humiliated. But Montherlant's 
hero is always on the defensive: "Take without being taken, the only 
acceptable formula between superior man and woman." 15 He speaks 
readily about the moment of desire, an aggressive moment, a virile 


one; he avoids the moment of pleasure; he might find that he risks 
discovering he also sweated, panted, "gave off body odours"; but no, 
who would dare breathe in his odor, feel his dampness? His 
defenseless flesh exists for no one, because there is no one opposite 
him: his is the only consciousness, a pure transparent and sovereign 
presence; and if pleasure exists for his own consciousness, he does 
not take it into account: it would have power over him. He speaks 
complacently of the pleasure he gave, never what he receives: 
receiving means dependence. "What I want from a woman is to give 
her pleasure"; 16 the living warmth of voluptuousness would imply 
complicity: he accepts none whatsoever; he prefers the haughty 
solitude of domination. He seeks cerebral, not sensual, satisfactions in 

And the first of these is an arrogance that aspires to express itself, 
but without running any risks. Facing the woman, "we have the same 
feeling as facing the horse or the bull: the same uncertainty and the 
same taste for testing one's strength ." 17 Testing it against other men 
would be risky; they would be involved in the test; they would 
impose unpredictable rankings, they would return an outside verdict; 
with a bull or a horse, one remains one's own judge, which is 
infinitely safer. A woman also, if she is well chosen, remains alone 
opposite the man. "I don't love in equality, because I seek the child in 
the woman." This truism does not explain anything: Why does he 
seek the child and not the equal? Montherlant would be more sincere 
if he declared that he, Montherlant, does not have any equal; and more 
precisely that he does not want to have one: his fellow man frightens 
him. He admires the rigors of the Olympic Games that create 
hierarchies in which cheating is not possible; but he has not himself 
learned the lesson; in the rest of his work and life, his heroes, like 
him, steer clear of all confrontation: they deal with animals, 
landscapes, children, women-children, and never with equals. In love 
with the hard clarity of sports, Montherlant accepts as mistresses only 
those women from whom his fearful pride risks no judgment. He 
chooses them "passive and vegetal," infantile, stupid, and venal. He 
systematically avoids granting them a consciousness: if he finds traces 
of one, he balks, he leaves; there is never a question of setting up any 
intersubjective relationship with woman: she has to be a simple 
animated object in man's kingdom; she can never be envisaged as 


subject; her point of view can never be taken into account. 
Montherlant's hero has a supposedly arrogant morality, but it is 
merely convenient: he is only concerned with his relations with 
himself. He is attached to woman — or rather he attaches woman — not 
to take pleasure in her but to take pleasure in himself: as she is 
absolutely inferior, woman's existence shows up the substantial, the 
essential, and the indestructible superiority of the male; risk-free. 

So Douce's foolishness enables Alban to "reconstruct in some way 
the sensations of the ancient demigod marrying a fabulous Goose." 18 

At Solange's first touch, Costals changes into a mighty lion: "They 
had barely sat down next to each other when he put his hand on the 
girl's thigh (on top of her dress), then placed it in the middle of her 
body as a lion holds his paw spread out on the piece of meat he has 
won." 19 

This gesture made daily by so many men in the darkness of 
cinemas is for Costals the "primitive gesture of the Lord." 20 

If, like him, they had the sense of grandeur, lovers and husbands 
who kiss their mistresses before taking them would experience these 
powerful metamorphoses at low cost. "He vaguely sniffed this 
woman's face, like a lion who, tearing at the meat he held between his 
paws, stops to lick it." 21 

This carnivorous arrogance is not the only pleasure the male gets 
out of his female; she is his pretext for him to experience his heart 
freely, spuriously, and always without risk. One night, Costals takes 
such pleasure in suffering that, sated with the taste of his own pain, he 
joyfully attacks a chicken leg. Rarely can one indulge in such a whim. 
But there are other powerful or subtle joys. For example, 
condescension; Costals condescends to answer some women's letters, 
and he even sometimes does it with care; to an unimportant, 
enthusiastic peasant, he writes at the end of a pedantic dissertation, "I 
doubt that you can understand me, but that is better than if I abase 
myself to you." 22 

He likes sometimes to shape a woman to his image: "I want you to 
be like an Arab scarf for me ... I did not raise you up to me for you 
to be anything else but me." 23 It amuses him to manufacture some 
happy memories for Solange. But it is above all when he sleeps with a 
woman that he drunkenly feels his prodigality. Giver of joy, peace, 


heat, strength, and pleasure: these riches he doles out fill him with 
satisfaction. He owes nothing to his mistresses; to be absolutely sure 
of that, he often pays them; but even when intercourse is an equal 
exchange, the woman is obliged to him without reciprocity: she gives 
nothing, he takes. He thinks nothing of sending Solange to the 
bathroom the day he deflowers her; even if a woman is dearly 
cherished, it would be out of the question for a man to go out of his 
way for her; he is male by divine right, she by divine right is doomed 
to the douche and bidet. Costals's pride is such a faithful copy of 
caddishness that it is hard to tell him apart from a boorish traveling 

Woman's first duty is to yield to his generosity's demands; when 
he imagines Solange does not appreciate his caresses, Costals turns 
white with rage. He cherishes Rhadidja because her face lights up 
with joy when he enters her. So he takes pleasure in feeling like both 
a beast of prey and a magnificent prince. One may be perplexed, 
however, by where this fever to take and to satisfy comes from if the 
woman taken and satisfied is just a poor thing, some tasteless flesh 
faintly palpitating with an ersatz consciousness. How can Costals 
waste so much time with these futile creatures? 

These contradictions show the scope of a pride that is nothing but 

A more subtle delectation belonging to the strong, the generous, the 
master, is pity for the unfortunate race. Costals from time to time is 
moved to feel such fraternal gravity, so much sympathy in his heart 
for the humble, so much "pity for women." What can be more 
touching than the unexpected gentleness of tough beings? He brings 
back to life this noble postcard image when deigning to consider these 
sick animals that are women. He even likes to see sportswomen 
beaten, wounded, exhausted, and bruised; as for the others, he wants 
them as helpless as possible. Their monthly misery disgusts him, and 
yet Costals confides that "he had always preferred women on those 
days when he knew them to be affected." 24 

He even yields to this pity sometimes; he goes so far as to make 
promises, if not to keep them: he promises to help Andree, to marry 
Solange. When pity retreats from his soul, these promises die: 
Doesn't he have the right to change his mind? He makes the rules of 
the game that he plays with himself as the only partner. 


Inferior and pitiful, that is not enough. Montherlant wants woman 
to be despicable. He sometimes claims that the conflict of desire and 
scorn is a pathetic tragedy: "Oh! To desire what one disdains: what a 
tragedy! ... To have to attract and repel in virtually the same gesture, to 
light and quickly put out as one does with a match, such is the tragedy 
of our relations with women!" 25 In truth, the only tragedy is from the 
match's point of view, that is, a negligible point of view. For the 
match lighter, careful not to burn his fingers, it is too obvious that this 
exercise delights him. If his pleasure were not to "desire what he 
disdains," he would not systematically refuse to desire what he 
esteems: Alban would not repel Dominique; he would choose what he 
desires: after all, what is so despicable about a little Spanish dancer, 
young, pretty, passionate, and simple; is it that she is poor, from a low 
social class, and without culture? In Montherlant's eyes, these would 
seem to be defects. But above all he scorns her as a woman, by 
decree; he says in fact that it is not the feminine mystery that arouses 
males' dreams but these dreams that create mystery; but he also 
projects onto the object what his subjectivity demands: it is not 
because they are despicable that he disdains women but because he 
wants to disdain them that they seem abject to him. He feels that the 
lofty heights he is perched on are all the higher as the distance 
between them and her is great; that explains why his heroes choose 
such pathetic sweethearts: against Costals, the great writer, he pits an 
old provincial virgin tortured by sex and boredom, and a little far-right 
bourgeois, vacuous and calculating; this is measuring a superior 
individual with humble gauges: the result is that he comes across as 
very small to the reader through this awkward caution. But that does 
not matter as Costals thinks himself grand. The humblest weaknesses 
of woman are sufficient to feed his pride. A passage in The Girls is 
particularly telling. Before sleeping with Costals, Solange is preparing 
herself for the night. "She has to go to the toilet, and Costals 
remembers this mare he had, so proud, so delicate that she neither 
urinated nor defecated when he was riding her." Here can be seen the 
hatred of the flesh (Swift comes to mind: Celia shits), the desire to see 
woman as a domestic animal, the refusal to grant her any autonomy, 
even that of urinating; but Costals 's annoyance shows above all that 
he has forgotten he too has a bladder and intestines; likewise, when he 
is disgusted by a woman bathed in sweat and body odor, he abolishes 


all his own secretions: he is a pure spirit served by muscles and a sex 
organ of steel. "Disdain is nobler than desire," Montherlant declares 
mAux fontaines du desir (At the Fountains of Desire), and Alvaro: 
"My bread is disgust." 26 What an alibi scorn is when it wallows in 
itself! Because one contemplates and judges, one feels totally other 
than the other that one condemns, and one dismisses the defects one is 
accused of free of charge. With what headiness has Montherlant 
exhaled his scorn for human beings throughout his whole life! It is 
sufficient for him to denounce their foolishness to believe he is 
intelligent, to denounce their cowardice to believe himself brave. At 
the beginning of the Occupation, he indulged in an orgy of scorn for 
his vanquished fellow countrymen: he who is neither French nor 
vanquished; he is above it all. Incidentally, all things considered, 
Montherlant, the accuser, did no more than the others to prevent the 
defeat; he did not even consent to being an officer; but he quickly and 
furiously resumed his accusations that take him well beyond 
himself. 27 

He affects to be distressed by his disgust so as to feel it is more 
sincere and to take more delight in it. The truth is that he finds so 
many advantages in it that he systematically seeks to drag the woman 
into abjection. He amuses himself by tempting poor girls with money 
and jewels: he exults when they accept his malicious gifts. He plays a 
sadistic game with Andree, for the pleasure not of making her suffer 
but of seeing her debase herself. He encourages Solange in 
infanticide; she welcomes this possibility, and Costals's senses are 
aroused: he takes this potential murderess in a ravishment of scorn. 

The apologue of the caterpillars provides the key to this attitude: 
whatever his hidden intention, it is significant in itself. 28 Pissing on 
caterpillars, Montherlant takes pleasure in sparing some and 
exterminating others; he takes a laughing pity on those that are 
determined to live and generally lets them off; he is delighted by this 
game. Without the caterpillars, the urinary stream would have been 
just an excretion; it becomes an instrument of life and death; in front 
of the crawling insect, man relieves himself and experiences God's 
despotic solitude, without running the risk of reciprocity. Likewise, 
faced with female animals, the male, from the top of his pedestal, 
sometimes cruel, sometimes tender, sometimes fair, sometimes 
unpredictable, gives, takes back, satisfies, pities, or gets irritated; he 


defers to nothing but his own pleasure; he is sovereign, free, and 
unique. But these animals must not be anything but animals; they 
would be chosen on purpose, their weaknesses would be flattered; 
they would be treated as animals with such determination that they 
would end up accepting their condition. In similar fashion, the blacks' 
petty robberies and lies charmed the whites of Louisiana and Georgia, 
confirming the superiority of their own skin color; and if one of these 
Negroes persists in being honest, he is treated even worse. In similar 
fashion, the debasement of man was systematically practiced in the 
concentration camps: the ruling race found proof in this abjection that 
it was of superhuman essence. 

This was no chance meeting. Montherlant is known to have 
admired Nazi ideology. He loved seeing the swastika and the sun 
wheel triumph in a celebration of the sun. "The victory of the sun 
wheel is not just a victory of the Sun, of paganism. It is the victory of 
the sun principle, which is that everything changes ... I see today the 
triumph of the principle I am imbued with, that I praised, that with a 
full consciousness I feel governs my life." 29 

It is also known with what a relevant sense of grandeur he 
presented these Germans who "breathe the great style of strength" as 
an example to the French during the Occupation. 30 

The same panicky taste for facility that makes him run when facing 
his equals brings him to his knees when facing the winners: kneeling 
to them is his way of identifying with them; so now he is a winner, 
which is what he always wanted, be it against a bull, caterpillars, or 
women, against life itself and freedom. It must be said that even 
before the victory, he was flattering the "totalitarian magicians." 31 
Like them, he has always been a nihilist, he has always hated 
humanity. "People aren't even worth being led (and humanity does 
not have to have done something to you [for you] to detest it to this 
extent)"; 32 like them, he thinks that certain beings — race, nation, or 
he, Montherlant, himself — are in possession of an absolute privilege 
that grants them full rights over others. His morality justifies and calls 
for war and persecution. To judge his attitude regarding women, we 
must scrutinize this ethic, because after all it is important to know in 
the name of what they are condemned. 

Nazi mythology had a historical infrastructure: nihilism expressed 
German despair; the cult of the hero served positive aims for which 


millions of soldiers lost their lives. Montherlant's attitude has no 
positive counterweight, and it expresses nothing but his own 
existential choice. In fact, this hero chooses fear. There is a claim to 
sovereignty in every consciousness: but it can only be confirmed by 
risking itself; no superiority is ever given since man is nothing when 
reduced to his subjectivity; hierarchies can only be established among 
men's acts and works; merit must be ceaselessly won: Montherlant 
knows it himself. "One only has rights over what one is willing to 
risk." But he never wants to risk himself amid his peers. And because 
he does not dare confront humanity, he abolishes it. "Infuriating 
obstacle that of beings," says the king in La reine morte (The Dead 
Queen). They give the lie to the complacent "fairyland" the conceited 
creates around himself. They have to be negated. It is noteworthy that 
none of Montherlant's works depicts a conflict between man and 
man; coexistence is the great living drama: he eludes it. His hero 
always rises up alone facing animals, children, women, landscapes; he 
is prey to his own desires (like the queen of Pasiphae) or his own 
demands (like the master of Santiago), but no person is ever beside 
him. Even Alban in The Dream does not have a friend: when Prinet 
was alive, he disdained him; he only exalts him over his dead body. 
Montherlant's works, like his life, recognize only one consciousness. 

With this, all feeling disappears from this universe; there can be no 
intersubjective relation if there is only one subject. Love is derisory; 
but it is not in the name of friendship that it is worthy of scorn, 
because "friendship lacks guts." 33 

And all human solidarity is haughtily rejected. The hero was not 
engendered; he is not limited by space and time: "I do not see any 
reasonable reason to be interested in exterior things that are of my 
time more than any others of any past year." 34 

Nothing that happens to others counts for him: "In truth events 
never counted for me. I only liked them for the rays they made in me 
by going through me . . . Let them be what they want to be." 35 

Action is impossible: "Having had passion, energy, and boldness 
and not being able to put them to any use through lack of faith in 
anything human!" 36 

That means that any transcendence is forbidden. Montherlant 
recognizes that. Love and friendship are twaddle, scorn prevents 
action; he does not believe in art for art's sake, and he does not 


believe in God. All that is left is the immanence of pleasure. "My one 
ambition is to use my senses better than others," 37 he writes in 1925. 
And again: "In fact, what do I want? To possess beings that please me 
in peace and poetry." 38 

And in 1941: "But I who accuse, what have I done with these 
twenty years? They have been a dream filled with my pleasure. I have 
lived high and wide, drunk on what I love: what a mouth-to-mouth 
with life!" 39 So be it. But is it not precisely because she wallows in 
immanence that woman is trodden upon? What higher aims, what 
great designs does Montherlant set against the mother's or lover's 
possessive love? He also seeks "possession"; and as for the "mouth- 
to-mouth with life," many women can give that back in kind. He does 
partake of unusual pleasures: those that can be had from animals, 
boys, and preadolescent girls; he is indignant that a passionate 
mistress would not dream of putting her twelve-year-old daughter in 
his bed: this indignation is not very solar. Can he not be aware that 
women's sensuality is no less tormented than men's? If that were the 
criterion for ranking the sexes, women would perhaps be first. 
Montherlant's inconsistencies are truly abominable. In the name of 
"alternation" he declares that since nothing is worth anything, 
everything is equal; he accepts everything, he wants to embrace 
everything, and it pleases him that mothers with children are 
frightened by his broad-mindedness; but he is the one who demanded 
an "inquisition" during the Occupation that would censure films and 
newspapers; 40 American girls' thighs disgust him, the bull's 
gleaming penis exalts him: to each his own; everyone re-creates his 
own "phantasm"; in the name of what values does this great orgiast 
spit with disgust on the orgies of others? Because they are not his 
own? So can all morality be reduced to being Montherlant? 

He would obviously answer that pleasure is not everything: style 
matters. Pleasure should be the other side of renunciation; the 
voluptuary also has to feel he is made of the stuff of heroes and 
saints. But many women are expert in reconciling their pleasures with 
the high image they have of themselves. Why should we think that 
Montherlant's narcissistic dreams are worth more than theirs? 

Because, in truth, this is a question of dreams. Because he denies 
them any objective content, the words Montherlant juggles with 
— "grandeur," "holiness," and "heroism" — are merely eye-catchers. 


Montherlant is afraid of risking his own superiority among men; to be 
intoxicated on this exalting wine, he retreats into the clouds: the 
Unique is obviously supreme. He closes himself up in a museum of 
mirages: mirrors reflect his own image infinitely, and he thinks that he 
can thus populate the earth; but he is no more than a reclusive prisoner 
of himself He thinks he is free; but he alienates his liberty in the 
interests of his ego; he models the Montherlant statue on postcard- 
imagery standards. Alban repelling Dominique because he sees a fool 
in the mirror illustrates this enslavement: it is in the eyes of others that 
one is a fool. The arrogant Alban subjects his heart to this collective 
consciousness that he despises. Montherlant 's liberty is an attitude, 
not a reality. Without an aim, action is impossible, so he consoles 
himself with gestures: it is mimicry. Women are convenient partners; 
they give him his lines, he takes the leading role, he crowns himself 
with laurels and drapes himself in purple: but everything takes place 
on his private stage; thrown onto the public square, in real light, under 
a real sky, the actor no longer sees clearly, cannot stand, staggers, and 
falls. In a moment of lucidity, Costals cries out: "Deep down, these 
'victories' over women are some farce!" 41 

Yes. Montherlant's values and exploits are a sad farce. The noble 
deeds that intoxicate him are also merely gestures, never undertakings: 
he is touched by Peregrinus's suicide, Pasiphae's boldness, and the 
elegance of the Japanese who shelters his opponent under his 
umbrella before taking his life in a duel. But he declares that "the 
adversary's specificity and the ideas he is supposedly representing are 
not all that important." 42 

This declaration had a particular resonance in 1941. Every war is 
beautiful, he also says, whatever its aims; force is always admirable, 
whatever it serves. "Combat without faith is the formula we 
necessarily end up with to maintain the only acceptable idea of man: 
one where he is the hero and the sage." 43 But it is curious that 
Montherlant's noble indifference regarding all causes inclines him not 
toward resistance but toward national revolution, that his sovereign 
freedom chooses submission, and that he looks for the secret of 
heroic wisdom not in the Maquis but in the conquerors. This is not by 
chance either. The pseudo-sublime of The Dead Queen and The 
Master of Santiago is where these mystifications lead. In these plays 
that are all the more significant for their ambition, two imperious 


males sacrifice women guilty of simply being human beings to their 
hollow pride; they desire love and earthly happiness: as punishment, 
one loses her life and the other her soul. If once again one asks, what 
for? the author answers haughtily: for nothing. He does not want the 
king's reasons for killing Ines to be too imperious: the murder should 
be a banal political crime. "Why do I kill her? There is probably a 
reason, but I cannot see it," he says. The reason is that the solar 
principle triumphs over earthly banality; but this principle does not 
inform any aim: it calls for destruction, nothing more, as has already 
been seen. As for Alvaro, Montherlant says in a preface that he is 
interested in certain men of this period in "their clear-cut faith, their 
scorn for the outside reality, their taste for destruction, their passion 
for nothing." This is the passion to which the master of Santiago 
sacrifices his daughter. She will be arrayed in the beautiful shimmer 
of words mystical. Is it not boring to prefer happiness to mysticism? 
Sacrifices and renunciations have meaning only in the light of an aim, 
a human aim; and aims that go beyond singular love or personal 
happiness can only exist in a world that recognizes the price of both 
love and happiness; the "shopgirl's morality" is more authentic than 
hollow phantasms because it is rooted in life and reality, where great 
aspirations can spring forth. Ines de Castro can easily be pictured in 
Buchenwald, with the king hurrying to the German embassy for 
reasons of state. Many shopgirls were worthy of a respect that we 
would not grant to Montherlant during the Occupation. The empty 
words he crams himself with are dangerous for their very hollowness: 
this superhuman mysticism justifies all kinds of temporal 
devastations. The fact is that in the plays under discussion, this 
mystique is attested to by two murders, one physical and the other 
moral; Alvaro does not have far to go to become a grand inquisitor: 
wild, solitary, unrecognizable; nor the king — misunderstood, rejected 
— to become a Himmler. They kill women, they kill Jews, they kill 
effeminate men and "Jewed" Christians, they kill everything they 
want or like to kill in the name of these lofty ideas. Only by negations 
can negative mysticisms be affirmed. True surpassing is a positive 
step toward the future, toward humanity's future. The false hero, to 
convince himself he goes far and flies high, always looks back, at his 
feet; he despises, he accuses, he oppresses, he persecutes, he tortures, 
he massacres. It is through the evil he does to his neighbor that he 


measures his superiority over him. Such are Montherlant's summits 
that he points out with an arrogant finger when he interrupts his 
"mouth-to-mouth with life." 

"Like the donkey at an Arab waterwheel, I turn, I turn, blind and 
endlessly retracing my steps. But I don't bring up freshwater." There 
is not much to add to this avowal that Montherlant signed in 1927. 
Freshwater never sprang forth. Maybe Montherlant should have lit 
Peregrinus's pyre: that would have been the most logical solution. He 
preferred to take refuge in his own cult. Instead of giving himself to 
this world, which he did not know how to nourish, he settled for 
seeing himself in it; and he organized his life in the interest of this 
mirage visible to his eyes alone. "Princes are at ease in all situations, 
even in defeat," he writes; 44 and because he delighted in defeat, he 
believes he is king. He learns from Nietzsche that "woman is the 
hero's amusement," and he thinks that it is enough to get pleasure 
from women to be anointed hero. The rest is the same. As Costals 
might say: "Deep down, what a farce!" 


Lawrence is the very antipode of Montherlant. His objective is not to 
define the special relations of woman and man but to situate them both 
in the truth of Life. This truth is neither representation nor will: it 
envelops the animality in which human beings have their roots. 
Lawrence passionately rejects the antithesis sex versus brain; he has a 
cosmic optimism radically opposed to Schopenhauer's pessimism, the 
will to live expressed in the phallus is joy: thought and action must 
derive their source from this, or else it would be an empty concept and 
a sterile mechanism. The sexual cycle alone is not sufficient, because 
it falls back into immanence: it is synonymous with death; but better 
this mutilated reality — sex and death — than an existence cut off from 
carnal humus. Unlike Antaeus, man needs more than to renew contact 
with the earth from time to time; his life as a male has to be wholly the 
expression of his virility, which posits and requires woman in its 
immediacy; she is thus neither diversion nor prey, she is not an object 
confronting a subject but a pole necessary for the existence of the pole 
of the opposite sign. Men who have misunderstood this truth — a 


Napoleon, for example — have missed their destiny as men: they are 
failures. It is by fulfilling his generality as intensely as possible, and 
not by affirming his singularity, that the individual can save himself: 
whether male or female, an individual should never seek the triumph 
of pride or the exaltation of his self in erotic relations; to use one's sex 
as a tool of one's will is the irreparable error; it is essential to break 
the barriers of the ego, transcend the very limits of consciousness, and 
renounce all personal sovereignty. Nothing could be more beautiful 
than that little statue of a woman giving birth: "A terrible face, void, 
peaked, abstracted almost into meaninglessness by the weight of 
sensation beneath." 45 This ecstasy is neither sacrifice nor abandon; 
there is no question of either sex letting itself be swallowed up by the 
other; neither the man nor the woman should be like a broken 
fragment of a couple; one's sex is not a wound; each one is a 
complete being, perfectly polarized; when one is assured in his 
virility, the other in her femininity, "each acknowledges the perfection 
of the polarized sex circuit"; 46 the sexual act is without annexation, 
without surrender of either partner, the marvelous fulfillment of each 
other. When Ursula and Birkin finally found each other, they "would 
give each other this star-equilibrium which alone is freedom" . . . "For 
she was to him what he was to her, the immemorial magnificence of 
mystic, palpable, real otherness." 47 Attaining each other in the 
generous wrenching of passion, two lovers together attain the Other, 
the All. So it is for Paul and Clara in the moment of their love: she is 
for him "a strong, strange, wild life, that breathed with his in the 
darkness through this hour. It was all so much bigger than 
themselves, that he was hushed. They had met, and included in their 
meeting the thrust of the manifold grass stems, the cry of the peewit, 
the wheel of the stars." 48 Lady Chatterley and Mellors attain the same 
cosmic joys: blending into each other, they blend into the trees, the 
light, and the rain. Lawrence develops this doctrine extensively in A 
Propos of "Lady Chatterley s Lover": "Marriage is no marriage that 
is not basically and permanently phallic, and that is not linked up with 
the sun and the earth, the moon and the fixed stars and the planets, in 
the rhythm of days, in the rhythm of months, in the rhythm of 
quarters, of years, of decades and of centuries. Marriage is no 
marriage that is not a correspondence of blood. For the blood is the 
substance of the soul." "The blood of man and the blood of woman 


are two eternally different streams, that can never be mingled." This is 
why these two streams encircle the whole of life in their meanderings. 
"The phallus is a column of blood, that fills the valley of blood of a 
woman. The great river of male blood touches to its depth the great 
river of female blood, yet neither breaks its bounds. It is the deepest 
of all communions ... And it is one of the greatest mysteries." This 
communion is a miraculous enrichment; but it requires that claims to 
"personality" be abolished. When personalities seek to reach each 
other without surrendering themselves, as usually happens in modern 
civilization, their attempt is doomed to failure. There is a personal, 
blank, cold, nervous, poetic sexuality that dissolves each one's vital 
stream. Lovers treat each other like instruments, breeding hate 
between them: so it is with Lady Chatterley and Michaelis; they 
remain locked in their subjectivity; they can experience a fever 
analogous to that procured by alcohol or opium, but it is without 
object: they fail to discover the reality of the other; they attain nothing. 
Lawrence would have condemned Costals summarily. He depicted 
Gerald as one of those proud and egotistical males; and Gerald is in 
large part responsible for this hell he and Gundrun hurl themselves 
into. 49 Cerebral and willful, he delights in the empty assertion of his 
self and hardens himself against life: for the pleasure of mastering a 
spirited mare, he holds her firm against a fence where a train thunders 
past, bloodying her rebellious flanks and intoxicating himself with his 
power. This will to dominate debases the woman against whom it is 
directed; physically weak, she is thus transformed into a slave. Gerald 
leans over Pussum: "Her inchoate look of a violated slave, whose 
fulfilment lies in her further and further violation, made his nerves 
quiver ... his was the only will, she was the passive substance of his 
will." Here is pitiful domination; if the woman is merely a passive 
substance, the male dominates nothing. He thinks he is taking, 
enriching himself: it is a delusion. Gerald embraces Gudrun tightly in 
his arms: "She was the rich, lovely substance of his being ... So she 
was passed away and gone in him, and he was perfected." But as 
soon as he leaves her, he finds himself alone and empty; and the next 
day, she fails to appear at their rendezvous. If the woman is strong, 
the male claim arouses a symmetrical claim in her; fascinated and 
rebellious, she becomes masochistic and sadistic in turn. Gudrun is 
greatly disturbed when she sees Gerald press the frightened mare's 


flanks between his thighs; but she is also disturbed when Gerald's 
wet nurse tells her how in the past she "pinched his little bottom." 
Masculine arrogance provokes feminine resistance. While Ursula is 
won over and saved by Birkin's sexual purity, as Lady Chatterley 
was by the gamekeeper, Gerald drags Gudrun into a struggle with no 
way out. One night, unhappy, shattered by a death, he abandons 
himself in her arms. "She was the great bath of life, he worshipped 
her. Mother and substance of all life she was ... But the miraculous, 
soft effluence of her breast suffused over him, over his seared, 
damaged brain, like a healing lymph, like a soft, soothing flow of life 
itself, perfect as if he were bathed in the womb again." That night he 
senses what communion with woman might be; but it is too late; his 
happiness is vitiated because Gudrun is not really present; she lets 
Gerald sleep on her shoulder, but she stays awake, impatient, apart. It 
is the punishment of the individual who is his own prey: alone he 
cannot end his solitude; in erecting barriers around his self, he erected 
those around the Other: he will never connect to it. In the end, Gerald 
dies, killed by Gudrun and by himself. 

Thus it would seem at first that neither of the two sexes is 
privileged. Neither is subject. Woman is neither a prey nor a simple 
pretext. As Malraux notes, Lawrence thinks that it is not enough, 
unlike Hindus, for woman to be merely the occasion for a contact 
with the infinite, as would be a landscape: that would be another way 
of making her an object. 50 She is as real as the man; a real 
communion has to be reached. This is why Lawrence's heroes 
demand much more from their mistresses than the gift of their bodies: 
Paul does not want Myriam to give herself to him as a tender 
sacrifice; Birkin does not want Ursula to limit herself to seeking 
pleasure in his arms; cold or burning, the woman who remains closed 
within herself leaves the man to his solitude: he must reject her. Both 
have to give themselves to each other, body and soul. If this giving is 
accomplished, they have to remain forever faithful to each other. 
Lawrence believed in monogamous marriage. There is only a quest 
for variety if one is interested in the uniqueness of beings: but phallic 
marriage is founded on generality. When the virility-femininity circuit 
is established, desire for change is inconceivable: it is a perfect circuit, 
closed on itself and definitive. 

Reciprocal gift, reciprocal fidelity: Is it really the reign of mutual 


recognition? Far from it. Lawrence passionately believes in male 
supremacy. The very expression "phallic marriage," the equivalence 
he establishes between the sexual and the phallic, is proof enough. Of 
the two bloodstreams that mysteriously marry, the phallic stream is 
favored. "The phallus is the connecting link between the two rivers, 
that establishes the two streams in a oneness." Thus man is not only 
one of the terms of the couple, but also their relationship; he is their 
surpassing: "The bridge to the future is the phallus." Lawrence wants 
to substitute the cult of the phallic for that of the Goddess Mother; 
when he wants to highlight the sexual nature of the cosmos, it is 
through man's virility rather than woman's womb. He almost never 
shows a man excited by a woman: but over and over he shows 
woman secretly overwhelmed by the vibrant, subtle, insinuating 
appeal of the male; his heroines are beautiful and healthy, but not 
sensuous, while his heroes are troubled wild animals. It is male 
animals that embody the troubling and powerful mystery of Life; 
women are subjugated by their spell: this one is affected by the fox, 
that one is taken with a stallion, Gudrun feverishly challenges a herd 
of young oxen; she is overwhelmed by the rebellious vigor of a 
rabbit. A social privilege is connected to this cosmic one. Because the 
phallic stream is impetuous and aggressive and bestrides the future — 
Lawrence does not make himself perfectly clear on this point — it is up 
to man to "carry forward the banner of life"; 5 1 he reaches for goals, 
he incarnates transcendence; woman is absorbed by her sentiments, 
she is all interiority; she is doomed to immanence. Not only does man 
play the active role in sexual life, but it is through him that this life is 
transcended; he is rooted in the sexual world, but he escapes from it; 
she remains locked up in it. Thought and action have their roots in the 
phallus; lacking the phallus, woman has no rights to either: she can 
play the man's role, and brilliantly at that, but it is a game without 
truth. "Woman is really polarised downwards, towards the centre of 
the earth. Her deep positivity is in the downward flow, the moon-pull. 
And man is polarised upwards, towards the sun and the day's 
activity." 52 For woman, "her deepest consciousness is in the loins and 
belly." 53 If she turns upward, the moment comes when everything 
collapses. In the domain of action, man must be the initiator, the 
positive; woman is the positive on the emotional level. Thus Lawrence 
goes back to the traditional bourgeois conception of Bonald, Auguste 


Comte, and Clement Vautel. Woman must subordinate her existence 
to that of man. "She's got to believe in you and in the deep 
purpose you stand for." 54 

Then man will owe her tenderness and infinite gratitude. "Ah, how 
good it is to come home to your wife when she believes in you and 
submits to your purpose that is beyond her ... You feel an 
unfathomable gratitude to the woman who loves you." 55 Lawrence 
adds that to merit this devotion, man must be authentically invested 
with a higher purpose; if his project is but a sham, the couple sinks 
into insignificant mystification; better still to enclose one's self in the 
feminine cycle — love and death — like Anna Karenina and Vronsky or 
Carmen and Don Jose, than to lie to each other like Pierre and 
Natasha. But subject to this reserve, Lawrence, like Proudhon and 
Rousseau, advocates monogamous marriage where woman derives 
the justification for her existence from her husband. Lawrence was 
just as vituperative as Montherlant concerning the woman who wants 
to reverse the roles. She should cease playing at the Magna Mater, 
claiming to be in possession of the truth of life; dominating and 
devouring, she mutilates the male, she forces him to fall back into 
immanence, and she leads him astray from his goals. Lawrence was 
far from disparaging motherhood: on the contrary; he rejoices in being 
flesh, he accepts his birth, he cherishes his mother; mothers appear in 
his work as magnificent examples of real femininity; they are pure 
renunciation, absolute generosity, and all their human warmth is 
devoted to their children; they accept them becoming men, they are 
proud of it. But the egotistical lover who tries to bring the man back to 
his childhood must be feared; she cuts man down in his flight. "The 
moon, the planet of women, sways us back." 56 

She speaks incessantly about love: but to love for her is to take, to 
fill the void she feels in herself; this love is close to hate; so it is that 
Hermione, who suffers from a horrible deficiency because she has 
never been able to give herself, wants to annex Birkin; she fails; she 
tries to kill him, and the voluptuous ecstasy she feels in striking him is 
identical to the egotistic spasm of pleasure. 57 

Lawrence detests modern women, celluloid and rubber creatures 
who claim a consciousness. When the woman has become sexually 
conscious, "there she is, functioning away from her own head and her 


own consciousness of herself and her own automatic self-will." 58 He 
forbids her to have an autonomous sensuality; she is made to give, not 
to take. Putting words in Mellors's mouth, Lawrence cries out his 
horror of lesbians. But he also blames the woman who has a detached 
or aggressive attitude to the male; Paul feels wounded and irritated 
when Myriam caresses his loins, telling him: "You are so fine!" 
Gundrun, like Myriam, is at fault when she feels enchanted with her 
lover's beauty: this contemplation separates them, as much as the 
irony of icy women intellectuals who consider the penis pitiful or 
male gymnastics ridiculous; the intense quest for pleasure is no less 
blameworthy: there is an acute, solitary pleasure that also separates, 
and woman should not aim for it. Lawrence sketched many portraits 
of these independent, dominating women who have missed their 
feminine vocation. Ursula and Gudrun are of this type. At first Ursula 
is a dominator. "Man must render himself up to her. He must be 
quaffed to the dregs by her." 59 She will learn to overcome her will. 
But Gudrun is stubborn; cerebral, artistic, she fiercely envies men 
their independence and their potential for activity; she persists in 
keeping her individuality intact; she wants to live for herself; ironic 
and possessive, she will remain forever shut up in her subjectivity. 
The most significant figure is Myriam because she is the least 
sophisticated. 60 Gerald is partially responsible for Gudrun's failure; 
but vis-a-vis Paul, Myriam alone bears the full weight of her ill fate. 
She also would like to be a man, and she hates men; she does not 
accept herself in her generality; she wants to "distinguish herself; 
because the great stream of life does not pass through her, she can be 
like a sorceress or a priestess, but never a bacchante; she is moved by 
things only when she has re-created them in her soul, giving them a 
religious value: this fervor itself separates her from life; she is poetic, 
mystical, maladapted. "She was not clumsy, and yet none of her 
movements seemed quite THE movement ... she put too much 
strength into the effort." She seeks interior joys, and reality frightens 
her; sexuality frightens her; when she sleeps with Paul, her heart 
stands aside in a kind of horror; she is always consciousness, never 
life: she is not a companion; she does not consent to meld with her 
lover; she wants to absorb him into herself. He is irritated by this will; 
he becomes violently angry when he sees her caressing flowers: she 
seems to want to tear their hearts out; he insults her: "You're always 


begging things to love you ... as if you were a beggar for 
love ... You don't want to love — your eternal and abnormal craving 
is to be loved. You aren't positive, you're negative. You absorb, 
absorb, as if you must fill yourself up with love, because you've got a 
shortage somewhere." Sexuality does not exist to fill a void; it must 
be the expression of a whole being. What women call love is their 
greed before the virile force they want to grab. Paul's mother lucidly 
thinks about Myriam: "She wants to absorb him. She wants to draw 
him out and absorb him till there is nothing left of him, even for 
himself. He will never be a man on his own feet — she will suck him 
up." The young girl is happy when her friend is ill because she can 
take care of him: she attempts to serve him, but it is a way of 
imposing her will on him. Because she lives apart from him, she 
excites in Paul "an intensity like madness. Which fascinated him, as 
drug taking might." But she is incapable of bringing him joy and 
peace; from the depth of her love, in her secret self "she had hated him 
because she loved him and he dominated her." And Paul distances 
himself from her. He seeks his balance with Clara; beautiful, lively, 
animal, she gives herself unreservedly; and the lovers reach moments 
of ecstasy that surpass them both; but Clara does not understand this 
revelation. She believes that she owes this joy to Paul himself, to his 
uniqueness, and she wants to appropriate him: she fails to keep him 
precisely because she wants him for herself. As soon as love is 
individualized, it changes into avid egotism, and the miracle of 
eroticism vanishes. 

The woman must renounce personal love: neither Mellors nor Don 
Cipriano consents to saying words of love to his mistress. Teresa, the 
model wife, becomes indignant when Kate asks her if she loves Don 
Ramon. 61 "He is my life," she replies; the gift she concedes to him is 
something quite different from love. Woman must, like man, abdicate 
all pride and all will; if she embodies life for the man, he embodies it 
for her as well; Lady Chatterley only finds peace and joy because she 
recognizes this truth: "She would give up her own hard, bright female 
power. She was weary of it, stiffened with it. She would sink in the 
new bath of life, in the depths of her womb and her bowels, that sang 
the voiceless song of adoration": so she is called to the rapture of the 
bacchantes; blindly obeying her lover, not seeking herself in his arms, 
she forms with him a harmonious couple, in tune with the rain, the 


trees, and the spring flowers. Likewise, Ursula renounces her 
individuality in Birkin's hands, and they attain a "star-equilibrium." 
But it is The Plumed Serpent above all that reflects in its entirety 
Lawrence's ideal. For Don Cipriano is one of those men who "carry 
forward the banner of life"; he has a mission and is entirely given 
over to it to such an extent that virility in him is surpassed and exalted 
to the point of divinity: if he anoints himself god, it is not a 
mystification; every man who is fully man is a god; he thus deserves 
the absolute devotion of a woman. Imbued with Western prejudices, 
Kate at first refuses this dependence; she is attached to her personality 
and her limited existence; but little by little letting herself be penetrated 
by the great stream of life, she gives her body and soul to Cipriano. It 
is not a slave's surrender: before deciding to stay with him, she insists 
that he recognize his need for her; he recognizes it, since in fact 
woman is necessary for man; so she consents to never being anything 
other than his companion; she adopts his goals, his values, his 
universe. This submission expresses itself even in eroticism; 
Lawrence does not want the woman to be tense in the search for 
pleasure, separated from the male by the spasm that jolts her; he 
deliberately refuses to bring her to orgasm; Don Cipriano withdraws 
from Kate when he feels her close to this nervous pleasure; she 
renounces even this sexual autonomy. "Her strange seething feminine 
will and desire subsided in her and swept away, leaving her soft and 
powerfully potent, like the hot springs of water that gushed up so 
noiseless, so soft, yet so powerful, with a sort of secret potency." 

We can see why Lawrence's novels are first and foremost 
"guidebooks for women." It is infinitely more difficult for the woman 
than for the man to submit to the cosmic order, because he submits in 
an autonomous fashion, whereas she needs the mediation of the male. 
When the Other takes on the form of a foreign consciousness and 
will, there is real surrender; on the contrary, an autonomous 
submission strangely resembles a sovereign decision. Lawrence's 
heroes are either condemned from the start or else from the start they 
hold the secret of wisdom; 62 their submission to the cosmos was 
consummated so long ago and they derive such interior certitude from 
it that they seem as arrogant as a self-important individualist; there is a 
god who speaks through their mouths: Lawrence himself. But the 
woman must bow to their divinity. Even if the man is a phallus and 


not a brain, the virile individual keeps his privileges; woman is not 
evil, she is even good: but subordinated. Once again, it is the ideal of 
the "real woman" that Lawrence offers us, that is, of the woman who 
unhesitatingly assents to defining herself as the Other. 


The originality of Claudel's Catholicism is of such an obstinate 
optimism that evil itself turns to good: 

Evil itself 

Abides its own share of good which must not be wasted. 6 ^ 

Adopting the point of view that can only be that of the Creator — 
since we assume the Creator to be all-powerful, omniscient, and 
benevolent — Claudel subscribes to creation entirely; without hell and 
sin, there could be no free will, no salvation; when he brought forth 
the world from nothing, God foresaw the Fall and the redemption. In 
the eyes of Jews and Christians, Eve's disobedience had put her 
daughters in a very bad position: we see how badly the Fathers of the 
Church have mistreated women. But here, on the contrary, she is 
justified if one accepts that she has served divine purposes. "Woman! 
that service she once by her disobedience rendered to God in the 
earthly Paradise; that deep agreement reached between her and him; 
that flesh she put at the disposal of redemption by way of the fault!" 64 
There is no doubt she is the source of sin, and through her man lost 
paradise. But man's sins have been redeemed, and this world is 
blessed anew: "We have not left the paradise of delight in which God 
first put us!" 65 

"Every Land is the Promised Land." 66 

Nothing that has come from God's hands, nothing that is given, 
can be in itself bad: "We pray to God with the entirety of his work! 
Nothing he made is in vain, nothing is alien to anything else." 67 

And furthermore, there is nothing that is unnecessary. "All things 
that he has created commune together, all at one and the same time are 
necessary each to each." 68 

Thus it is that woman has her place in the harmony of the universe; 


but it is not just an ordinary place; there is a "strange and, in Lucifer's 
eyes, scandalous passion that binds the Eternal to this momentary 
flower of Nothingness." 69 

Of course, woman can be destructive: In Lechy, Claudel incarnated 
the bad woman who drives man to his destruction; 70 in Break of 
Noon, Yse ruins the life of those trapped by her love. But if there 
were not this risk of loss, there would not be salvation either. Woman 
"is the element of risk he deliberately introduced into the midst of his 
marvelous construction." 71 It is good that man should know the 
temptations of the flesh. "It is this enemy within us that gives our 
lives their dramatic element, their poignant salt. If our souls were not 
so brutally assailed, they would continue to sleep, yet here they leap 
up ... This struggle is the apprenticeship of victory." 72 Man is 
summoned to become aware of his soul not only by the spiritual path 
but also by that of the flesh. "And what flesh speaks more forcefully 
to man than the flesh of a woman?" 73 Whatever wrenches him from 
sleep, from security, is useful: love in whatever form it presents has 
the virtue of appearing in "our small personal worlds, ordered by our 
conventional reasoning, as a deeply perturbing element." 74 Often 
woman is but a deceptive giver of illusions: 

I am the promise that cannot be kept, and my grace consists of 
that very thing. I am the sweetness of what is, with the regret for 
what is not. I am the truth that has the countenance of error, and 
he who loves me does not bother to disentangle each from 
each. 75 

But there is also usefulness in illusion; this is what the Guardian 
Angel announces to Dona Prouheze: 

Even sin! Sin also serves. 

So it was good for him to love me? 

It was good for you to teach him desire. 

Desire for an illusion? For a shadow that forever escapes him? 
Desire is for what is, illusion is for what is not. Desire pursued 
to the furthermost point of illusion 

Is desire pursued to the furthermost point of what is not. 76 


By God's will, what Prouheze was for Rodrigo is "a sword 
through his heart." 77 

But woman in God's hands is not only this blade, this burn; the 
riches of this world are not meant to be always refused: they are also 
nourishment; man must take them with him and make them his own. 
The loved one will embody for him all the recognizable beauty in the 
universe; she will be a chant of adoration on his lips. 

"How lovely you are, Violaine, and how lovely is the world where 
you are." 78 

"Who is she who stands before me, gentler than the breeze, like the 
moon among the young foliage?... Here she is like the fresh 
honeybee unfolding its newborn wings, like a lanky doe, and like a 
flower that does not even know it is beautiful." 79 

"Let me breathe your scent like that of the earth, when it glows and 
is washed like an altar, and brings forth blue and yellow flowers. 

"And let me breathe the summer's aroma that smells of grass and 
hay, and is like the autumn's fragrance." 80 

She is the sum of all nature: the rose and the lily, the star, the fruit, 
the bird, the wind, the moon, the sun, the fountain, "the peaceful 
tumult, in noon's light, of a great port." 81 

And she is still more: a peer. 

"Now, this time for me, that luminous point of night's living sands 
is something quite different from a star, 
"Someone human like me . . ." 82 

"You will be alone no more, and I will be in you and with you, 
with you forever, the devoted one. Someone yours forever who will 
never be absent, your wife." 83 

"Someone to listen to what I say and trust in me. 

"A soft-voiced companion who takes us in her arms and attests she 
is a woman." 84 

Body and soul, in taking her into his heart, man finds his roots in 
this earth and accomplishes himself. 

"I took this woman, and she is my measure and my earthly 
allotment." 85 She is a burden, and man is not made to be burdened. 

"And the foolish man finds himself surprised by this absurd 
person, this great heavy and cumbersome thing. 

"So many dresses, so much hair, what can he do? 


"He is no longer able, he no longer wants to be rid of her." 86 
This burden is also a treasure. "I am a great treasure," says 

Reciprocally, woman achieves her earthly destiny by giving herself 
to man. 

"For what is the use of being a woman, unless to be gathered? 
"And being this rose, if not to be devoured? And of being born, 
"Unless to belong to another and to be the prey of a powerful 
lion?" 87 

"What shall we do, who can only be a woman in his arms, and in 
his heart a cup of wine?" 88 

"But you my soul say: I have not been created in vain and he who 
is called to gather me is alive!" 

"The heart that was waiting for me, ah! what joy for me to fill it." 89 

Of course this union of man and woman is to be consummated in 
the presence of God; it is holy and belongs in the eternal; it should be 
consented to by a deep movement of the will and cannot be broken by 
an individual caprice. "Love, the consent that two free people grant 
each other, seemed to God so great a thing that he made it a 
sacrament. In this as in all other matters the sacrament gives reality to 
that which was but the heart's supreme desire." 90 And further: 

"Marriage is not pleasure but the sacrifice of pleasure, it is the 
study made by two souls who forever, henceforth, and to end beyond 

"Must be content with each other." 91 

It is not only joy that man and woman will bring to each other 
through this union; each will take possession of the other's being. 
"He it was who knew how to find that soul within my soul! ... He it 
was who came to me and held out his hand. He was my calling! How 
can I describe it? He was my origin: it was he by whom and for 
whom I came into the world." 92 

"A whole part of myself which I thought did not exist because I 
was busy elsewhere and not thinking of it. Ah! My God, it exists, it 
does exist, terribly." 93 

And this being appears as justified, necessary for the one it 
completes. "It is in him that you were necessary," says Prouheze's 
Angel. And Rodrigo: 


"For what is it to die but to stop being necessary? 

"When was she able to do without me? When shall I cease to be for 
her that without which she could not have been herself?" 94 

"They say that no soul was made except in a life and in a 
mysterious relationship with other lives. 

"But for us it is still more than that. For I exist as I speak; one 
single thing resonating between two people. 

"When we were being fashioned, Orion, I think that a bit of your 
substance was left over and that I am made of what you lack." 95 

In the marvelous necessity of this union, paradise is regained, death 

"At last the being who existed in paradise is here remade of a man 
and woman." 96 

"We will never manage to do away with death unless it be by one 

"As purple mixed with orange gives pure red." 97 

Finally, in the form of another, each one attains the Other, that is 
God, in his plenitude. 

"What we give one another is God in different guises." 98 

"Would your desire for heaven have been so great if you had not 
glimpsed it once in my eyes?" 99 

"Ah! Stop being a woman and let me at last see on your face the 
God you are powerless to hide." 100 

"The love of God calls in us on the same faculty as the love of his 
creatures, it calls on our feeling that we are not complete in ourselves 
and that the supreme God in which we are consummated is someone 
outside ourselves." 101 

Thus each finds in the other the meaning of his earthly life and also 
irrefutable proof of the insufficiency of this life: 

"Since I cannot grant him heaven, at least I can tear him from the 
earth. I alone can give him need in the measure of his desire." 102 

"What I was asking from you, and what I wanted to give you, is 
not compatible with time, but with eternity." 103 

Yet woman's and man's roles are not exactly symmetrical. On the 
social level, man's primacy is evident. Claudel believes in hierarchies 
and, among others, the family's: the husband is the head. Anne 
Vercors rules over her home. Don Pelagio sees himself as the 


gardener entrusted with the care of this delicate plant, Dona Prouheze; 
he gives her a mission she does not dream of refusing. The fact alone 
of being a male confers privilege. "Who am I, poor girl, to compare 
myself to the male of my race?" asks Sygne. 104 

It is man who labors in the fields, who builds cathedrals, who 
fights with the sword, who explores the world, who acts, who 
undertakes. God's plans are accomplished on earth through him. 
Woman is merely an auxiliary. She is the one who stays in place, who 
waits, and, who, like Sygne, maintains: "I am she who remains and 
who am always there." 

She defends the heritage of Coufontaine, keeps his accounts in 
order while he is far away fighting for the cause. The woman brings 
the relief of hope to the fighter: "I bring irresistible hope." 105 And that 
of pity. 

"I had pity on him. For where was he to turn, when he sought his 
mother, but to his own humiliated mother, 
"In a spirit of confession and shame." 106 
And Tete d'Or, dying, murmurs: 

"That is the wounded man's courage, the crippled man's support, 
"The dying man's company ..." 

Claudel does not hold it against man that woman knows him in his 
weakest moments; on the contrary: he would find man's arrogance as 
displayed in Montherlant and Lawrence sacrilege. It is good that man 
knows he is carnal and lowly, that he forgets neither his origin nor his 
death, which is symmetrical to it. Every wife could say the same 
words as Marthe: 

"It is true, it was not I who gave you life. 

"But I am here to ask you for life once more. And a man's 
confusion in the presence of a woman comes from this very question 

"Like conscience in the presence of a creditor." 107 

And yet this weakness has to yield to force. In marriage, the wife 
gives herself to the husband, who takes care of her: Lala lies down on 
the ground before Coeuvre, who places his foot on her. The relation 
of woman to husband, of daughter to father, of sister to brother, is a 
relation of vassalage. In George's hands, Sygne takes the vow of the 
knight to his sovereign. 

"You are the lord and I the poor sibyl who keeps the fire." 108 


"Let me take an oath like a new knight! 0 my lord! 0 my elder, let 
me swear in your hands 

"After the fashion of a nun who makes her profession, 
"O male of my race!" 109 

Fidelity and loyalty are the greatest of the female vassal's human 
virtues. Sweet, humble, resigned as a woman, she is, in the name of 
her race and her lineage, proud and invincible; such is the proud 
Sygne de Coufontaine and Tete d'Or's princess, who carries on her 
shoulder the corpse of her assassinated father, who accepts the misery 
of a lonely and wild life, the suffering of a crucifixion, and who 
assists Tete d'Or in his agony before he dies at her side. Conciliator 
and mediator is thus how woman often appears: she is docile Esther 
accountable to Mordecai, Judith obeying the priests; she can 
overcome her weakness, her faintheartedness, and her modesty 
through loyalty to the cause that is hers since it is that of her masters; 
she draws strength from her devotion, which makes her a precious 

So on the human level she is seen as drawing her greatness from 
her very subordination. But in God's eyes, she is a perfectly 
autonomous person. The fact that for man existence surpasses itself 
while for woman it maintains itself only establishes a difference 
between them on earth: in any case, transcendence is accomplished 
not on earth but in God. And woman has just as direct a connection 
with him as her companion does; perhaps hers is even more intimate 
and secret. It is through a man's voice — what is more, a priest's — that 
God speaks to Sygne; but Violaine hears his voice in the solitude of 
her heart, and Prouheze only deals with the Guardian Angel. 
Claudel's most sublime figures are women: Sygne, Violaine, 
Prouheze. This is partly because saintliness for him lies in 
renunciation. And woman is less involved in human projects; she has 
less personal will: made to give and not to take, she is closer to perfect 
devotion. It is through her that the earthly joys that are permissible 
and good will be surpassed, but their sacrifice is still better. Sygne 
accomplishes this for a definite reason: to save the pope. Prouheze 
resigns herself to it first because she loves Rodrigo with a forbidden 

"Would you then have wanted me to put an adulteress into your 
hands?... I would have been only a woman who soon dies on your 


heart and not that eternal star that you thirst for." 1 10 

But when this love could become legitimate, she makes no attempt 
to accomplish it in this world. For the Angel whispers to her: 

"Prouheze, my sister, luminous child of God whom I salute, 

"Prouheze whom the angels see and who does not know that he is 
watching, she it is whom you made so as to give her to him." 1 1 1 

She is human, she is woman, and she does not resign herself 
without revolt: "He will not know how I taste!" 1 12 

But she knows that her true marriage with Rodrigo is only 
consummated by her denial: 

"When will there no longer be any way to escape, when he will be 
attached to me forever in an impossible marriage, when he will no 
longer find a way to wrench himself from the cry of my powerful 
flesh and that pitiless void, when I will have proved to him his 
nothingness and the nothingness of myself, when there will no longer 
be in his nothingness a secret that my secret cannot confirm. 

"It is then that I shall give him to God, naked and torn, so that he 
may be filled in a blast of thunder, it is then that I will have a husband 
and clasp a god in my arms." 1 13 

Violaine's resolution is more mysterious and gratuitous still; for 
she chooses leprosy and blindness when a legitimate bond could have 
united her to the man she loves and who loves her. 

"Jacques, perhaps 

"We loved each other too much for it to be right for us to belong to 
each other, for it to be good to be each other's." 1 14 

But if women are so singularly devoted to saintly heroism, it is 
above all because Claudel still grasps them from a masculine 
perspective. To be certain, each of the sexes embodies the Other in the 
eyes of the complementary sex; but to his man's eyes it is, in spite of 
everything, the woman who is often regarded as an absolute other. 
There is a mystical surpassing insofar as "we know that in and of 
ourselves we are insufficient, hence the power of woman over us, like 
the power of Grace." 1 15 The "we" here represents only males and not 
the human species, and faced with their imperfection, woman is the 
appeal of infinity. In a way, there is a new principle of subordination 
here: by the communion of saints each individual is an instrument for 
all others; but woman is more precisely the instrument of salvation for 


man, without any reciprocity. The Satin Slipper is the epic of 
Rodrigo's salvation. The drama opens with a prayer his brother 
addresses to God on his behalf; it closes with the death of Rodrigo, 
whom Prouheze has brought to saintliness. But, in another sense, the 
woman thereby gains the fullest autonomy: for her mission is 
interiorized in her, and in saving the man, or in serving as an example 
to him, she saves herself in solitude. Pierre de Craon prophesies 
Violaine's destiny to her, and he receives in his heart the wonderful 
fruits of her sacrifice; he will exalt her before mankind in the stones of 
cathedrals. But Violaine accomplishes it without help. In Claudel there 
is a mystique of woman akin to Dante's for Beatrice, to that of the 
Gnostics, and even to that of the Saint-Simonian tradition which 
called woman a regenerator. But because men and women are equally 
God's creatures, he also attributed an autonomous destiny to her. So 
that for him it is in becoming other — I am the Servant of the Lord — 
that woman realizes herself as subject; and it is in her for-itself that 
she appears as the Other. 

There is a passage from The Adventures of Sophie that more or less 
sums up the whole Claudelian concept. God, we read, has entrusted to 
woman "this face which, however remote and deformed it may be, is 
a certain image of his perfection. He has rendered her desirable. He 
has joined the end and the beginning. He has made her the keeper of 
his projects and capable of restoring to man that creative slumber in 
which even she was conceived. She is the foundation of destiny. She 
is the gift. She is the possibility of possession ... She is the 
connection in this affectionate link that ever unites the Creator to his 
work. She understands him. She is the soul that sees and acts. She 
shares with Him in some way the patience and power of creation." 

In a way, it seems that woman could not be more exalted. But deep 
down Claudel is only expressing in a poetic way a slightly 
modernized Catholic tradition. We have seen that the earthly vocation 
of woman does not cancel out any of her supernatural autonomy; on 
the contrary, in recognizing this, the Catholic feels authorized to 
maintain male prerogatives in this world. If the woman is venerated in 
God, she will be treated like a servant in this world: and further, the 
more total submission is demanded of her, the more surely will she 
move forward on the road to her salvation. Her lot, the lot the 
bourgeoisie has always assigned to her, is to devote herself to her 


children, her husband, her home, her realm, to country, and to church; 
man gives activity, woman her person; to sanctify this hierarchy in the 
name of divine will does not modify it in the least, but on the contrary 
attempts to fix it in the eternal. 


In spite of the gulf separating Claudel's religious world and Breton's 
poetic universe, there is an analogy in the role they assign to women: 
she is an element that perturbs; she wrests man from the sleep of 
immanence; mouth, key, door, bridge, it is Beatrice initiating Dante 
into the beyond. "The love of man for woman, if we think for a 
moment about the palpable world, continues to fill the sky with 
gigantic and wild flowers. It is the most awful stumbling block for the 
mind that always feels the need to believe itself on safe ground." The 
love for an other, a woman, leads to the love of the Other. "It is at the 
height of elective love for a particular being that the floodgates of love 
for humanity open wide." But for Breton the beyond is not a foreign 
heaven: it is right here; it unveils itself if one knows how to lift the 
veils of everyday banality; eroticism, for one, dissipates the lure of 
false knowledge. "The sexual world, nowadays . . . has not stopped 
pitting its unbreakable core of night against our will to penetrate the 
universe." Colliding with the mystery is the only way of discovering 
it. Woman is enigma and poses enigmas; the addition of her multiple 
faces composes "the unique being in which we are granted the 
possibility of seeing the last metamorphosis of the Sphinx"; and that 
is why she is revelation. "You were the very image of secrecy," says 
Breton to a woman he loved. And a little farther: "That revelation you 
brought me: before I even knew what it consisted of, I knew it was a 
revelation." This means that woman is poetry. She plays that role in 
Gerard de Nerval as well: but 'mSylvie and Aurelia she has the 
consistency of a memory or a phantom because the dream, more real 
than the real, does not exactly coincide with it; the coincidence is 
perfect for Breton: there is only one world; poetry is objectively 
present in things, and woman is unequivocally a being of flesh and 
bones. She can be found wide-awake and not in a half dream, in the 
middle of an ordinary day on a date like any other day on the calendar 


— April 5, April 12, October 4, May 29 — in an ordinary setting: a 
cafe, a street corner. But she always stands out through some unusual 
feature. Nadja "carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the 
sidewalk ... She was curiously made up ... I had never seen such 
eyes." Breton approaches her. "She smiles, but quite mysteriously and 
somehow knowingly." In L 'amour fou (Mad Love): "This young 
woman who just entered appeared to be swathed in mist — clothed in 
fire?. . . And I can certainly say that here, on the twenty-ninth of May 
1934, this woman w as scandalously beautiful." 1 16 The poet 
immediately admits she has a role to play in his destiny; at times this 
is a fleeting, secondary role, such as the child with Delilah's eyes in 
Les vases communicants (Communicating Vessels); even when tiny 
miracles emerge around her: the same day Breton has a rendezvous 
with this Delilah, he reads a good review written by a friend called 
Samson with whom he had not been in touch for a long time. 
Sometimes wonders occur; the unknown woman of May 29, Ondine, 
who had a swimming piece in her music-hall act, was presaged by a 
pun heard in a restaurant: "Ondine, one dines"; and her first long date 
with the poet had been described in great detail in a poem he wrote 
eleven years earlier. Nadja is the most extraordinary of these 
sorceresses: she predicts the future, and from her lips spring forth 
words and images her friend has in mind at the very same instant; her 
dreams and drawings are oracles: "I am the soul in limbo," she says; 
she went forward in life with "behavior, based as it was on the purest 
intuition alone and ceaselessly relying on miracle"; around her, 
objective chance spreads strange events; she is so marvelously 
liberated from appearances that she scorns laws and reason: she ends 
up in an asylum. She is a "free genius, something like one of those 
spirits of the air which certain magical practices momentarily permit 
us to entertain but which we can never overcome." This prevents her 
from fulfilling her feminine role completely. Medium, prophetess, 
inspiration, she remains too close to the unreal creatures that visited 
Nerval; she opens the doors to the surreal world: but she is unable to 
give it because she could not give herself. Woman accomplishes 
herself and is really transformed in love; unique, accepting a unique 
destiny — and not floating rootless through the universe — so she is the 
sum of all. The moment her beauty reaches its highest point is at 
night, when "she is the perfect mirror in which everything that has 


been and everything that is destined to be is suffused adorably in what 
is going to be this time." For Breton "finding the place and the 
formula" is one with "possessing the truth within one soul and one 

And this possession is only possible in reciprocal love, carnal love, of 
course. "The portrait of the woman one loves must be not only an 
image one smiles at but even more an oracle one questions"; but 
oracle only if this very woman is something other than an idea or an 
image; she must be the "keystone of the material world"; for the seer 
this is the same world as Poetry, and in this world he has to really 
possess Beatrice. "Reciprocal love alone is what conditions total 
magnetic attraction which nothing can affect, which makes flesh sun 
and splendid impression on the flesh, which makes spirit a forever- 
flowing stream, inalterable and alive whose water moves once and for 
all between marigold and wild thyme." 

This indestructible love can only be unique. It is the paradox of 
Breton's attitude that from Communicating Vessels to Arcanum 17, 
he is determined to promise love both unique and eternal to different 
women. But according to him, it is social circumstances, thwarting the 
freedom of his choice, that lead man into erroneous choices; in fact, 
through these errors, he is really looking for one woman. And if he 
remembers the faces he has loved, he "will discover at the same time 
in all these women's faces one face only: the last face loved. 1 17 How 
many times, moreover, have I noticed that under extremely dissimilar 
appearances one exceptional trait was developing." He asks Ondine in 
Mad Love: "Are you at last this woman, is it only today you were to 
come?" But in Arcanum 17: "You know very well that when I first 
laid eyes on you I recognized you without the slightest hesitation." In 
a completed, renewed world, the couple would be indissoluble, 
through an absolute and reciprocal gift: Since the beloved is all, how 
could there be any room for another? She is also this other; and all the 
more fully as she is more her self. "The unusual is inseparable from 
love. Because you are unique you can't help being for me always 
another, another you. Across the diversity of these inconceivable 
flowers over there, it is you over there changing whom I love in a red 
blouse, naked, in a gray blouse." And about a different but equally 
unique woman, Breton wrote: "Reciprocal love, such as I envisage it, 
is a system of mirrors which reflects for me, under the thousand 


angles that the unknown can take for me, the faithful image of the one 
I love, always more surprising in her divining of my own desire and 
more gilded with life." 

This unique woman, both carnal and artificial, natural and human, 
casts the same spell as the equivocal objects loved by the surrealists: 
she is like the spoon-shoe, the table-magnifying glass, the sugar cube 
of marble that the poet discovers at the flea market or invents in a 
dream; she shares in the secret of familiar objects suddenly discovered 
in their truth, and the secret of plants and stones. She is all things: 

My love whose hair is wood/ire 
Her thoughts heat lightning 
Her hourglass waist ... 
My love whose sex is 
Algae and sweets of yore ... 
My love of savannah eyes. 

But she is Beauty, above and beyond every other thing. Beauty for 
Breton is not an idea one contemplates but a reality that reveals itself 
— and therefore exists — only through passion; only through woman 
does beauty exist in the world. 

"And it is there — right in the depths of the human crucible, in this 
paradoxical region where the fusion of two beings who have really 
chosen each other renders to all things the lost colors of the times of 
ancient suns, where, however, loneliness rages also, in one of 
nature's fantasies which, around the Alaskan craters, demands that 
under the ashes there remain snow — it is there that years ago I asked 
that we look for a new beauty, a beauty 'envisaged exclusively to 
produce passion.' " 

"Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic- 
circumstantial, or it will not be." 

It is from woman that everything that is derives meaning. "Love 
and love alone is precisely what the fusion of essence and existence 
realizes to the highest degree." It is accomplished for lovers and thus 
throughout the whole world. "The recreation, the perpetual 
recoloration of the world in a single being, such as they are 
accomplished through love, light up with a thousand rays the advance 
of the earth ahead." For all poets — or almost all — woman embodies 


nature; but for Breton, she not only expresses it: she delivers it. 
Because nature does not speak in a clear language, its mysteries have 
to be penetrated in order to grasp its truth, which is the same thing as 
its beauty: poetry is not simply the reflection of it but rather its key; 
and woman here cannot be differentiated from poetry. That is why she 
is the indispensable mediator without whom the whole earth would be 
silenced: "Nature is likely to light up and to fade out, to serve and not 
to serve me, only to the extent that I feel the rise and the fall of the fire 
of a hearth which is love, the only love, that for a single being ... It 
was only lacking for a great iris of fire to emerge from me to give its 
value to what exists ... I contemplate to the point of dizziness your 
hands opened above the fire of twigs which we just kindled and 
which is now raging, your enchanting hands, your transparent hands 
hovering over the fire of my life." Every woman loved is a natural 
wonder for Breton: "a tiny, unforgettable fern climbing the inside wall 
of an ancient well." "Something so blinding and serious that she could 
not but bring to mind . . . the great natural physical necessity while at 
the same time tenderly dreaming of the nonchalance of some tall 
flowers beginning to blossom." But inversely: every natural wonder 
merges with the beloved; he exalts her when he waxes emotional 
about a grotto, a flower, a mountain. Between the woman who warms 
his hands on a landing of Teide and Teide itself, all distance is 
abolished. The poet invokes both in one prayer: "Wonderful Teide, 
take my life! Mouth of the heavens and yet mouth of hell, I prefer you 
thus in your enigma, able to send natural beauty to the skies and to 
swallow up everything." 

Beauty is even more than beauty; it fuses with "the deep night of 
knowledge"; it is truth and eternity, the absolute; woman does not 
deliver a temporal and contingent aspect of the world, she is the 
necessary essence of it, not a fixed essence as Plato imagined it, but a 
"fixed-explosive" one. "The only treasure I find in myself is the key 
that opens this limitless field since I have known you, this field made 
of the repetition of one plant, taller and taller, swinging in a wider and 
wider arc and leading me to death . . . Because one woman and one 
man, who until the end of time must be you and me, will drift in their 
turn without ever turning back as far as the path goes, in the optical 
glow, at the edges of life and of the oblivion of life . . . The greatest 
hope, I mean the one encompassing all the others, is that this be for all 


people, and that for all people this lasts, that the absolute gift of one 
being to another who cannot exist without his reciprocity be in the 
eyes of all the only natural and supernatural bridge spanning life." 

Through the love she inspires and shares, woman is thus the only 
possible salvation for each man. In Arcanum 1 7, her mission spreads 
and takes shape: she has to save humanity. Breton has always been 
part of the Fourier tradition that, demanding rehabilitation of the flesh, 
exalts woman as erotic object; it is logical that he should come to the 
Saint- Simonian idea of the regenerating woman. In today's society, 
the male dominates to such an extent that it is an insult for someone 
like Gourmont to say of Rimbaud: "a girl's temperament." However, 
"the time has come to value the ideas of woman at the expense of 
those of man, whose bankruptcy is coming to pass fairly 
tumultuously today." "Yes, it is always the lost woman, she who 
sings in man's imagination, but after such trials for her and for him, it 
must also be the woman retrieved. And first of all, woman has to 
retrieve herself; she has to learn to recognize herself through the hells 
she is destined to by the more than problematic view that man, in 
general, carries of her." 

The role she should fill is above all that of pacifier. "I've always 
been stupefied that she didn't make her voice heard, that she didn't 
think of taking every possible advantage, the immense advantage of 
the two irresistible and priceless inflexions given to her, one for 
talking to men during love, the other that commands all of a child's 
trust . . . What clout, what future would this great cry of warning and 
refusal from woman have had . . . When will we see a woman simply 
as woman perform quite a different miracle of extending her arms 
between those who are about to grapple to say: You are brothers." If 
woman today looks ill adapted or off balance, it is due to the treatment 
masculine tyranny has inflicted on her; but she maintains a miraculous 
power because her roots plunge deep into the wellspring of life whose 
secrets males have lost. "Melusina, half reclaimed by panic-stricken 
life, Melusina with lower joints of broken stones, aquatic plants or the 
down of a nest, she's the one I invoke, she's the only one I can see 
who could redeem this savage epoch. She's all of woman and yet 
woman as she exists today, woman deprived of her human base, 
prisoner of her mobile roots, if you will, but also through them in 
providential communication with nature's elemental forces. Woman 


deprived of her human base, legend has it, by the impatience and 
jealousy of man." 

So today one has to be on woman's side; while waiting for her real 
worth to be restored to her, "Those of us in the arts must pronounce 
ourselves unequivocally against man and for woman." "The child- 
woman. Systematically art must prepare her advent into the empire of 
tangible things." Why child-woman? Breton explains: "I choose the 
child-woman not in order to oppose her to other women, but because 
it seems to me that in her and in her alone exists in a state of absolute 
transparency the other prism of vision." 1 18 

Insofar as woman is merely assimilated to a human being, she will 
be as unable as male human beings to save the doomed world; it is 
femininity as such that introduces this other element — the truth of life 
and poetry — into civilization, and that alone can free humanity. 

As Breton's view is exclusively poetic, it is exclusively as poetry 
and thus as Other that woman is envisaged. If one were to ask about 
her own destiny, the response would be implied in the ideal of 
reciprocal love: her only vocation is love; this is in no way inferiority, 
since man's vocation is also love. However, one would like to know 
whether for her as well, love is the key to the world, the revelation of 
beauty; will she find this beauty in her lover? Or in her own image? 
Will she be capable of the poetic activity that makes poetry happen 
through a sentient being: or will she be limited to approving her 
male's work? She is poetry itself, in the immediate that is, for man; 
we are not told whether she is poetry for herself too. Breton does not 
speak of woman as subject. Nor does he ever evoke the image of the 
bad woman. In his work as a whole — in spite of a few manifestos and 
pamphlets in which he vilifies the human herd — he focuses not on 
categorizing the world's superficial resistances but on revealing the 
secret truth: woman interests him only because she is a privileged 
"mouth." Deeply anchored in nature, very close to the earth, she also 
appears to be the key to the beyond. One finds in Breton the same 
esoteric naturalism as in the Gnostics who saw in Sophia the principle 
of redemption and even of creation, as in Dante choosing Beatrice for 
guide, or Petrarch illuminated by Laura's love. That is why the being 
most rooted in nature, the closest to the earth, is also the key to the 
beyond. Truth, Beauty, Poetry, she is All: once more all in the figure 
of the other, All except herself. 



If now, leaving the present period, I return to Stendhal, it is because, 
leaving behind these carnivals where Woman is disguised as shrew, 
nymph, morning star, or mermaid, I find it reassuring to approach a 
man who lives among flesh-and-blood women. 

Stendhal loved women sensually from childhood; he projected the 
hopes of his adolescence onto them: he readily imagined himself 
saving a beautiful stranger and winning her love. Once he was in 
Paris, what he wanted the most ardently was a "charming wife; we 
will adore each other, she will know my soul." Grown old, he writes 
the initials of the women he loved the most in the dust. "I believe that 
dreaming was what I preferred above all," he admits. And his dreams 
are nourished by images of women; his memories of them enliven the 
countryside. "The line of rocks when approaching Arbois and coming 
from Dole by the main road was, I believe, a touching and clear image 
for me of Metilde's soul." Music, painting, architecture, everything he 
cherished, he cherished it with an unlucky lover's soul; while he is 
walking around Rome, a woman emerges at every turn of the page; by 
the regrets, desires, sadnesses, and joys women awakened in him, he 
came to know the nature of his own heart; it is women he wants as 
judges: he frequents their salons, he wants to shine; he owes them his 
greatest joys, his greatest pain, they were his main occupation; he 
prefers their love to any friendship, their friendship to that of men; 
women inspire his books, female figures populate them; he writes in 
great part for them. "I might be lucky enough to be read in 1900 by 
the souls I love, the Mme Rolands, the Melanie Guilberts ..." They 
were the very substance of his life. Where did this privilege come 

This tender friend of women — and precisely because he loves them 
in their truth — does not believe in feminine mystery; there is no 
essence that defines woman once and for all; the idea of an eternal 
feminine seems pedantic and ridiculous to him. "Pedants have been 
repeating for two thousand years that women have quicker minds and 
men more solidity; that women have more subtlety in ideas and men 
more attention span. A Parisian passerby walking around the 
Versailles gardens once concluded that from everything he saw, the 
trees are born pruned." The differences that one notices between men 


and women reflect those of their situation. For example, how could 
women not be more romantic than their lovers? "A woman at her 
embroidery frame, insipid work that only involves her hands, dreams 
of her lover, who, galloping around the countryside with his troop, is 
put under arrest if he makes one false move." Likewise, women are 
accused of lacking common sense. "Women prefer emotions to 
reason; this is so simple: as they are not given responsibility for any 
family affair by virtue of our pedestrian customs, reason is never 
useful to them ... Let your wife settle your affairs with the farmers on 
two of your lands, and I wager that the books are better kept than by 
you." If so few female geniuses are found in history, it is because 
society denies them any means of expression. "All the geniuses who 
are born women are lost for the public good; when chance offers them 
the means to prove themselves, watch them attain the most difficult 
skills." 119 

The worst handicap they have to bear is the deadening education 
they are given; the oppressor always attempts to diminish those he 
oppresses; man intentionally refuses women their chances. "We allow 
their most brilliant qualities and the ones richest in happiness for 
themselves and for us to remain idle." At ten years of age, the girl is 
quicker, subtler than her brother; at twenty, the scamp is a quick- 
witted adult and the girl "a big awkward idiot, shy and afraid of a 
spider"; at fault is the training she has received. Women should be 
given exactly as much education as boys. Antifeminists object that 
cultured and intelligent women are monsters: the whole problem 
comes from the fact that they are still exceptional; if all women had 
equal access to culture as naturally as men, they would just as 
naturally take advantage of it. After having been mutilated, they are 
then subjected to laws against nature: married against their hearts, they 
are supposed to be faithful, and even divorce is reproached as wild 
behavior. A great number of them are destined to idleness when the 
fact is that there is no happiness without work. This condition 
scandalizes Stendhal, and therein he finds the source of all the faults 
blamed on women. They are neither angels nor demons nor sphinx: 
but human beings reduced to semi-slavery by idiotic customs. 

It is precisely because they are oppressed that the best of them will 
avoid the faults that tarnish their oppressors; in themselves they are 
neither inferior nor superior to man: but by a curious reversal, their 


unfortunate situation works in their favor. It is well-known that 
Stendhal hates the spirit of seriousness:* money, honors, rank, and 
power are the saddest of idols to him; the immense majority of men 
alienate themselves in their pursuit; the pedant, the self-important man, 
the bourgeois, and the husband stifle in themselves any spark of life 
and truth; armed with preconceived ideas and learned feelings, 
obeying social routines, they are inhabited only by emptiness; a world 
populated with these creatures without a soul is a desert of boredom. 
There are unfortunately many women who stagnate in these dismal 
swamps; they are dolls with "narrow and Parisian ideas" or else self- 
righteous hypocrites; Stendhal experiences "a mortal disgust for 
decent women and the hypocrisy that is indispensable to them"; they 
bring to their frivolous occupations the same seriousness that 
represses their husbands; stupid through education, envious, vain, 
talkative, mean through idleness, cold, emotionless, pretentious, 
harmful, they populate Paris and the provinces; they can be seen 
swarming about behind the noble figure of a Mme de Renal or a Mme 
de Chasteller. The one Stendhal depicted with the most bitter care is 
undoubtedly Mme Grandet, the exact negative of a Mme Roland or a 
Metilde. Beautiful but expressionless, condescending and without 
charm, she intimidates by her "famous virtue" but does not know real 
modesty, which comes from the soul; full of admiration for self, 
imbued with her own personage, she only knows how to copy 
grandeur from the outside; deep down inside she is vulgar and 
inferior; "she has no character ... she bores me," thinks M. Leuwen. 
"Perfectly reasonable, concerned by the success of her projects," she 
focuses all of her ambition on making her husband a minister; "her 
mind was arid"; careful and conformist, she always kept herself from 
love, she is incapable of a generous movement; when passion sets 
into this dry soul, it burns without illuminating her. 

It is only necessary to reverse this image to discover what Stendhal 
asks of women: first, not to fall prey to the traps of seriousness; 
because the supposedly important things are out of their reach, 
women risk alienating themselves in them less than men; they have a 
better chance of preserving this natural side, this naivete, this 
generosity that Stendhal places higher than any other merit; what he 
appreciates in them is what we would call today their authenticity: that 
is the common trait of all the women he loved or invented with love; 


all are free and true beings. For some, their freedom is strikingly 
visible: Angela Pietragrua, "sublime whore, Italian style, a la Lucrezia 
Borgia," and Mme Azur, "whore a la du Barry . . . one of the least 
doll-like French women that I have met," oppose social custom 
openly. Lamiel laughs at conventions, customs, and laws; Sanseverina 
throws herself ardently into the intrigue and does not stop at crime. 
Others rise above the vulgar through the vigor of their minds: like 
Menta or Mathilde de la Mole, who criticizes, denigrates, and scorns 
the society that surrounds her and wants to stand apart from it. For 
others, freedom takes a wholly negative form; what is remarkable in 
Mme de Chasteller is her indifference to everything secondary; 
subjected to her father's will and even his opinions, she still manages 
to contest bourgeois values by means of the indifference she is 
criticized for as childish, and that is the source of her carefree gaiety; 
Clelia Conti also stands apart by her reserve; balls and other 
traditional entertainments for girls leave her cold; she always seems 
distant "either out of scorn for what surrounds her or out of regret for 
some missing chimera"; she judges the world, she takes offense at its 
indignities. Mme de Renal is the one whose soul's independence is 
the most deeply hidden; she herself does not know she is not really 
resigned to her lot; her extreme delicacy and acute sensitivity show 
her repugnance for her milieu's vulgarity; she is without hypocrisy; 
she has kept a generous heart, capable of violent emotions, and she 
has the taste for happiness; the fire that smolders barely gives off any 
heat, but only a breath is needed for it to be fully kindled. These 
women are, simply, living; they know the source of real values is not 
in exterior things but in the heart; that is what makes the charm of the 
world they inhabit: they chase away boredom merely by being present 
with their dreams, desires, pleasures, emotions, and inventions. 
Sanseverina, that "active soul," dreads boredom more than death. 
Stagnating in boredom "is preventing one from dying, she said, it is 
not living"; she is "always totally involved in something, always 
active, always gay." Foolhardy, childish, or deep, gay or serious, 
reckless or secretive, they all refuse the heavy sleep in which 
humanity sinks. And these women who have been able to preserve 
their freedom, albeit unfulfilled, will rise up by passion to heroism as 
soon as they meet an object worthy of them; their force of soul and 
their energy attest to the fierce purity of total commitment. 


But freedom alone would not be sufficient to endow them with so 
many romantic attractions: a pure freedom inspires esteem but not 
emotion; what is touching is their effort to accomplish themselves in 
spite of the obstacles that beleaguer them; it creates even more pathos 
in women because the struggle is more difficult. The victory over 
exterior constraints is sufficient to enchant Stendhal; in Chroniques 
italiennes (Three Italian Chronicles) he cloisters his heroines in 
remote convents, he locks them up in a jealous spouse's palace: they 
have to invent a thousand tricks to meet their lovers; secret doors, 
rope ladders, bloody chests, kidnappings, sequestrations, and 
assassinations, the unleashing of passion and disobedience is served 
by an ingenuity in which all the mind's resources are displayed; death 
and the threat of tortures highlight even more the daringness of the 
deranged souls he depicts. Even in his more mature work, Stendhal 
remains sympathetic to this external expression of the romantic: it is 
the manifestation of the one born from the heart; they cannot be 
distinguished from each other just as a mouth cannot be separated 
from its smile. Clelia invents love anew by inventing the alphabet that 
allows her to correspond with Fabrice; Sanseverina is described to us 
as "a soul always sincere who never acts with caution, who totally 
gives herself over to the impression of the moment"; it is when she 
schemes, when she poisons the prince and floods Parma, that this 
soul is revealed to us: she is no other than the sublime and mad 
escapade that she has chosen to live. The ladder that Mathilde de la 
Mole leans against her window is much more than a prop: her proud 
recklessness, her penchant for the extraordinary, and her provocative 
courage take a tangible form. The qualities of these souls would not 
be revealed were they not surrounded by enemies: prison walls, a 
lord's will, and a family's harshness. 

But the most difficult constraints to overcome are those that one 
finds in oneself: then the adventure of freedom is the most uncertain, 
the most poignant, and the most piquant. Clearly, the more often 
Stendhal's heroines are prisoners, the greater his sympathy for them. 
Yes, he enjoys whores — sublime or not — who have once and for all 
trampled on the conventions; but he cherishes Metilde more tenderly, 
restrained by her scruples and modesty. Lucien Leuwen is happy 
when near Mme d'Hocquincourt, that liberated person: but it is Mme 
de Chasteller, chaste, reserved, and hesitant, that he loves 


passionately; Fabrice admires the undivided soul of Sanseverina that 
stops at nothing; but he prefers Clelia, and it is the young girl who 
wins his heart. And Mme de Renal, bound by her pride, her 
prejudices, and her ignorance, is perhaps the most astonishing of all 
the women Stendhal created. He readily places his heroines in the 
provinces, in a confined milieu, under the authority of a husband or a 
foolish father; it pleases him that they are uneducated and even full of 
false ideas. Mme de Renal and Mme de Chasteller are both obstinately 
legitimist; the former is a timid mind and without experience, the latter 
is a brilliant intelligence, but she underestimates its worth; they are 
therefore not responsible for their errors, but they are the victims of 
them as much as of institutions and social customs; and it is from 
error that romance springs forth, as poetry is born from failure. A 
lucid mind that decides on its actions in full knowledge is approved or 
blamed coldly, whereas the courage and ruses of a generous heart 
seeking its way in the shadows are admired with fear, pity, irony, or 
love. It is because women are mystified that useless and charming 
qualities such as their modesty, pride, and extreme delicacy flourish; 
in one sense, these are defects: they lead to lies, susceptibilities, and 
anger, but they can be explained by the situation in which women are 
placed; it leads them to take pride in little things or at least in "things 
determined by feeling" because all the "supposedly important" objects 
are out of their reach; their modesty results from the dependence they 
suffer: because it is forbidden to them to show their worth in action, it 
is their very being that they put in question; it seems to them that the 
other's consciousness, and particularly that of their lover, reveals 
them in their truth: they are afraid, they try to escape it; in their 
evasions, their hesitations, their revolts, and even their lies, an 
authentic concern for worth is expressed; that is what makes them 
respectable; but it is expressed awkwardly, even with bad faith, and 
that makes them touching and even discreetly comic. When freedom is 
hoist by its own petard and cheats on itself, it is at the most deeply 
human and so in Stendhal's eyes at its most endearing. Stendhal's 
women are imbued with pathos when their hearts pose unexpected 
problems for them: no outside law, recipe, reasoning, or example can 
then guide them; they have to decide alone: this abandon is the 
extreme moment of freedom. Clelia is brought up with liberal ideas, 
she is lucid and reasonable: but learned opinions, whether right or 


wrong, are of no help in a moral conflict; Mme de Renal loves Julien 
in spite of his morality, Clelia saves Fabrice in spite of herself: in both 
cases there is the same surpassing of all accepted values. This daring 
is what exalts Stendhal; but it is even more moving because it barely 
dares to declare itself: it is all the more natural, spontaneous, and 
authentic. In Mme de Renal, boldness is hidden by innocence: 
because she does not know love, she does not recognize it and yields 
to it without resistance; one could say that having lived in darkness, 
she is defenseless against the violent light of passion; she welcomes 
it, blinded, even against God, against hell; when this fire goes out, she 
falls back in the shadows that husbands and priests govern; she does 
not trust her own judgment, but the evidence overwhelms her; as soon 
as she sees Julien again, she once more unburdens her soul to him; 
her remorse and the letter her confessor wrests from her show the 
distance this ardent and sincere soul had to span to tear herself away 
from the prison society enclosed her in and accede to the heaven of 
happiness. The conflict is more conscious for Clelia; she hesitates 
between loyalty to her father and pity inspired by love; she is 
searching for a rationale; the triumph of the values in which Stendhal 
believes is all the more striking to him in that this triumph is 
experienced as a defeat by the victims of a hypocritical civilization; 
and he delights in seeing them use ruses and bad faith to make the 
truth of passion and happiness prevail against the lies in which they 
believe: Clelia, promising the Madonna to no longer see Fabrice, and 
accepting his kisses and his embraces for two years, providing she 
closes her eyes, is both laughable and heartbreaking. Stendhal 
considers Mme de Chasteller's hesitations and Mathilde de la Mole's 
inconsistencies with the same tender irony; so many detours, changes 
of mind, scruples, victories, and hidden defeats in order to reach 
simple and legitimate ends is for him the most delightful of comedies; 
there is drollery in these dramas because the actress is both judge and 
party, because she is her own dupe, and because she burdens herself 
with complicated paths where a decree would suffice for the Gordian 
knot to be cut; but they nonetheless show the most respectable 
concern that could torture a noble soul: she wants to remain worthy of 
her own esteem; she places her own approbation higher than that of 
others, and thus she realizes herself as an absolute. These solitary 
debates without reverberation have more gravity than a ministerial 


crisis; when she wonders if she is going to respond to Lucien 
Leuwen's love or not, Mme de Chasteller decides for herself and the 
world: Can one have confidence in others? Can one trust one's own 
heart? What is the value of love and human vows? Is it mad or 
generous to believe and to love? These questions challenge the very 
meaning of life, that of each and every one. The so-called important 
man is futile, in fact, because he accepts ready-made justifications of 
his life, while a passionate and deep woman revises established values 
at each instant; she knows the constant tension of an unassisted 
freedom; thus she feels herself in constant danger: she can win or lose 
everything in a second. It is this risk, accepted with apprehension, that 
gives her story the color of a heroic adventure. And the stakes are the 
highest that can be: the very meaning of this existence of which 
everyone has a share, his only part. Mina de Vanghel's escapade can 
seem absurd in one sense; but she brings to it a whole ethic. "Was her 
life a false calculation? Her happiness lasted eight months. She had 
too ardent a soul to settle for the real life." Mathilde de la Mole is less 
sincere than Clelia or Mme de Chasteller; she orders her acts on the 
idea she has of herself rather than on the evidence of love and 
happiness: Is it more arrogant, grander to keep oneself than to lose 
oneself, to humiliate oneself before one's beloved than to resist him? 
She is alone with her doubts, and she risks this self-esteem that is 
more important to her than life itself. It is the ardent quest for the real 
reasons to live through the shadows of ignorance, prejudice, and 
mystifications, in the wavering and feverish light of passion, it is the 
infinite risk of happiness or death, of grandeur or shame that gives 
romantic glory to these women's destinies. 

The woman is of course unaware of the seduction she radiates; 
self-contemplation and playacting are always inauthentic attitudes; by 
the mere fact of comparing herself to Mme Roland, Mme Grandet 
proves she does not resemble her; if Mathilde de la Mole continues to 
be endearing, it is because she gets confused in her playacting and is 
often prey to her heart just when she thinks she governs it; she moves 
us insofar as she is not ruled by her will. But the purest of heroines 
lack consciousness of themselves. Mme de Renal is unaware of her 
grace just as Mme de Chasteller is of her intelligence. It is one of the 
deep joys of the lover with whom the author and the reader identify: 
he is the witness through whom these secret riches are revealed; the 


vivacity Mme De Renal deploys out of everyone's sight, the "bright 
wit, changing and deep," unknown to Mme de Chasteller's milieu, he 
alone admires them; and even if others appreciate Sanseverina's wit, 
he is the one who penetrates the deepest into her soul. Faced with the 
woman, the man tastes the pleasure of contemplation; she intoxicates 
him like a landscape or a painting; she sings in his heart and lights up 
the sky. This revelation reveals him to himself: one cannot understand 
women's delicacy, their sensibilities, and their ardor without 
developing a delicate, sensitive, and ardent soul oneself; female 
feelings create a world of nuances and requirements whose discovery 
enriches the lover: when with Mme de Renal, Julien becomes 
someone other than the ambitious man he had decided to be; he 
chooses himself anew. If the man has only a superficial desire for the 
woman, he will find seducing her amusing. But it is real love that will 
transfigure his life. "Love a la Werther opens the soul ... to feeling 
and pleasure in the beautiful in whatever form it takes, even in a hair 
shirt. It makes happiness attainable even without wealth." "It is a new 
aim in life to which everything is connected and that changes the 
appearance of everything. Love-as-passion throws in man's eyes all 
of nature with its sublime aspects as if it were a novelty invented 
yesterday." Love shatters daily routine, chases away boredom, the 
boredom in which Stendhal sees such a deep evil because it is the 
absence of all the reasons for living or dying; the lover has an aim, 
and that is enough for each day to become an adventure: what a 
pleasure for Stendhal to spend three days hidden in Menta's cellar! 
Rope ladders and bloody chests represent this taste for the 
extraordinary in his novels. Love, that is woman, reveals the real ends 
of existence: beauty, happiness, the freshness of feelings and of the 
world. It tears man's soul out and thus gives him possession of it; the 
lover experiences the same tension, the same risks, as his mistress and 
feels himself more authentically than during a planned career. When 
Julien hesitates at the base of the ladder Mathilde has set up, he puts 
his whole destiny into question: in that very moment, he demonstrates 
his true worth. It is through women, under their influence, in reaction 
to their behavior, that Julien, Fabrice, and Lucien learn about the 
world and themselves. Test, reward, judge, or friend, the woman in 
Stendhal is really what Hegel was once tempted to make of her: that 
other consciousness that, in reciprocal recognition, gives to the other 


subject the same truth it receives from it. The happy couple that 
recognizes each other in love defies the universe and time; it is 
sufficient in itself, it realizes the absolute. 

But this supposes that woman is not pure alterity: she is subject 
herself. Stendhal never describes his heroines as a function of his 
heroes: he provides them with their own destinies. He undertook 
something rarer and that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he 
projected himself into a female character. He does not examine Lamiel 
as Marivaux does Marianne, or Richardson does Clarissa Harlowe: 
he shares her destiny as he had shared that of Julien. Precisely 
because of that, the character of Lamiel is singularly significant, if 
somewhat theoretical. Stendhal sets up all imaginable obstacles 
around the girl: she is a peasant, poor, ignorant, and brought up 
harshly by people imbued with every prejudice; but she eliminates 
from her path all the moral barriers the day she understands the scope 
of these little words: "It's stupid." Her mind's freedom enables her to 
take responsibility for all the movements of her curiosity, her 
ambition, her gaiety; faced with such a resolute heart, material 
obstacles cannot fail to decrease; her only problem will be to carve out 
a destiny worthy of her in a mediocre world. That destiny 
accomplishes itself in crime and death: but that is also Julien's lot. 
There is no place for great souls in society as it is: men and women 
are in the same boat. 

It is remarkable that Stendhal is both so profoundly romantic and 
so decidedly feminist; feminists are usually rational minds that adopt a 
universal point of view in all things; but it is not only in the name of 
freedom in general but also in the name of individual happiness that 
Stendhal calls for women's emancipation. Love, he thinks, will have 
nothing to lose; on the contrary, it will be all the truer that woman, as 
the equal of man, will be able to understand him more completely. 
Undoubtedly, some of the qualities one enjoys in woman will 
disappear: but their value comes from the freedom that is expressed in 
them and that will show in other guises; and the romantic will not fade 
out of this world. Two separate beings, placed in different situations, 
confronting each other in their freedom, and seeking the justification 
of existence through each other, will always live an adventure full of 
risks and promises. Stendhal trusts the truth; as soon as one flees it, 
one dies a living death; but where it shines, so shine beauty, 


happiness, love, and a joy that carries in it its own justification. That is 
why he rejects the false poetry of myths as much as the mystifications 
of seriousness. Human reality is sufficient for him. Woman, 
according to him, is simply a human being: dreams could not invent 
anything more intoxicating. 


These examples show that the great collective myths are reflected in 
each singular writer: woman appears to us as flesh; male flesh is 
engendered by the maternal womb and re-created in the woman 
lover's embrace: thus, woman is akin to nature, she embodies it: 
animal, little vale of blood, rose in bloom, siren, curve of a hill, she 
gives humus, sap, tangible beauty, and the world's soul to man; she 
can hold the keys to poetry; she can be mediator between this world 
and the beyond: grace or Pythia, star or witch, she opens the door to 
the supernatural, the surreal; she is destined to immanence; and 
through her passivity she doles out peace and harmony: but should 
she refuse this role, she becomes praying mantis or ogress. In any 
case, she appears as the privileged Other through whom the subject 
accomplishes himself: one of the measures of man, his balance, his 
salvation, his adventure, and his happiness. 

But these myths are orchestrated differently for each individual. 
The Other is singularly defined according to the singular way the One 
chooses to posit himself. All men assert themselves as freedom and 
transcendence: but they do not all give the same meaning to these 
words. For Montherlant transcendence is a state: he is the 
transcendent, he soars in the sky of heroes; the woman crouches on 
the ground, under his feet; he enjoys measuring the distance 
separating him from her; from time to time, he raises her to him, takes 
and then rejects her; never does he lower himself toward her sphere of 
viscous darkness. Lawrence situates transcendence in the phallus; the 
phallus is life and power only thanks to woman; immanence is thus 
good and necessary; the false hero who deigns not to touch the earth, 
far from being a demigod, fails to be a man; woman is not despicable, 
she is deep wealth, hot spring; but she must renounce all personal 
transcendence and settle for nourishing that of her male. Claudel 


demands the same devotion: woman is also for him the one who 
maintains life, while man prolongs the vital momentum by his activity; 
but for the Catholic everything that occurs on earth is steeped in vain 
immanence: the only transcendent is God; in God's eyes the active 
man and the woman who serves him are exactly equal; each one has 
to surpass his earthly condition: salvation in any case is an 
autonomous undertaking. For Breton sexual hierarchy is inverted; 
action and conscious thought in which the male situates his 
transcendence are for him a banal mystification that engenders war, 
stupidity, bureaucracy, and negation of the human; it is immanence, 
the pure opaque presence of the real, that is the truth; true 
transcendence would be accomplished by the return to immanence. 
His attitude is the exact opposite of Montherlant's: the latter likes war 
because women are banished from it, Breton venerates woman 
because she brings peace; one confuses mind and subjectivity, he 
rejects the given universe; the other thinks the mind is objectively 
present in the heart of the world; woman compromises Montherlant 
because she shatters his solitude; she is, for Breton, revelation 
because she wrests him from subjectivity. As for Stendhal, we saw 
that woman barely takes on a mythical value for him: he considers her 
as also being a transcendence; for this humanist, it is in their 
reciprocal relations that freedoms are accomplished; and it is sufficient 
that the Other is simply another for life to have, according to him, a 
little spice; he does not seek a stellar equilibrium, he does not nourish 
himself with the bread of disgust; he does not expect miracles; he 
wishes to concern himself not with the cosmos or poetry but with 

That is, he also experiences himself as a translucent freedom. The 
others — and this is one of the most important points — posit 
themselves as transcendences but feel they are prisoners of an opaque 
presence in their own hearts: they project onto woman this 
"unbreakable core of night." In Montherlant there is an Adlerian 
complex where heavy bad faith is born: these pretensions and fears 
are what he incarnates in woman; the disgust he feels for her is what 
he fears to feel for himself; he intends to trample in her the ever 
possible proof of his own insufficiency; he asks scorn to save him; 
woman is the ditch in which he throws all the monsters that inhabit 
him. 120 


Lawrence's life shows us that he suffered from an analogous 
complex but more purely sexual: woman in his work has the value of 
a compensatory myth; through her is found an exalted virility of 
which the writer was not very sure; when he describes Kate at Don 
Cipriano's feet, he believes he has won a male triumph over Frieda; 
nor does he accept that his female companion challenges him: if she 
contested his aims, he would probably lose confidence in them; her 
role is to reassure him. He asks for peace, rest, and faith from her, just 
as Montherlant asks for the certitude of his superiority: they demand 
what they lack. Self-confidence is not lacking in Claudel: if he is shy, 
it is only the secret of God. Thus, there is no trace of the battle of the 
sexes. Man bravely takes on the weight of woman: she is the 
possibility of temptation or of salvation. For Breton it seems that man 
is only true through the mystery that inhabits him; it pleases him that 
Nadja sees that star he is going toward and that is like "a heartless 
flower"; his dreams, intuitions, and the spontaneous unfolding of his 
inner language: it is in these activities that are out of the control of will 
and reason that he recognizes himself: woman is the tangible figure of 
this veiled presence infinitely more essential than her conscious 

As for Stendhal, he quietly coincides with himself; but he needs 
woman as she does him so that his dispersed existence is gathered in 
the unity of a figure and a destiny; it is as for-another that the human 
being reaches being; but another still has to lend him his 
consciousness: other men are too indifferent to their peers; only the 
woman in love opens her heart to her lover and shelters it in its 
entirety. Except for Claudel, who finds a perfect witness in God, all 
the writers we have considered expect, in Malraux's words, woman 
to cherish in them this "incomparable monster" known to themselves 
alone. In collaboration or combat, men come up against each other in 
their generality. Montherlant, for his peers, is a writer, Lawrence a 
doctrinaire, Breton a leader of a school, Stendhal a diplomat or a man 
of wit; it is women who reveal in one a magnificent and cruel prince, 
in another a disturbing animal, in still another a god or a sun or a 
being "black and cold . . . like a man struck by lightning, lying at the 
feet of the Sphinx," 121 and in the other a seducer, a charmer, a lover. 

For each of them, the ideal woman will be she who embodies the 
most exactly the Other able to reveal him to himself Montherlant, the 


solar spirit, looks for pure animality in her; Lawrence, the phallic, 
demands that she sum up the female sex in its generality; Claudel 
defines her as a soul sister; Breton cherishes Melusina rooted in 
nature, he puts his hopes in the child-woman; Stendhal wants his 
mistress intelligent, cultivated, free of spirit and morals: an equal. But 
the only earthly destiny reserved to the woman equal, child-woman, 
soul sister, woman-sex, and female animal is always man. Regardless 
of the ego looking for itself through her, it can only attain itself if she 
consents to be his crucible. In any case, what is demanded of her is 
self-forgetting and love. Montherlant consents to be moved by the 
woman who enables him to measure his virile power; Lawrence 
addresses an ardent hymn to the woman who renounces herself for 
him; Claudel exalts the vassal, servant, and devoted woman who 
submits herself to God by submitting herself to the male; Breton puts 
his hopes in woman for humanity's salvation because she is capable 
of the most total love for her child and her lover; and even in Stendhal 
the heroines are more moving than the masculine heroes because they 
give themselves over to their passion with a more ardent violence; 
they help man to accomplish his destiny as Prouheze contributes to 
Rodrigo's salvation; in Stendhal's novels, women often save their 
lovers from ruin, prison, or death. Feminine devotion is demanded as 
a duty by Montherlant and Lawrence; less arrogant, Claudel, Breton, 
and Stendhal admire it as a generous choice; they desire it without 
claiming to deserve it; but — except for the astonishing Lamiel — all 
their works show they expect from woman this altruism that Comte 
admired in and imposed on her, and which, according to him, also 
constituted both a flagrant inferiority and an equivocal superiority. 

We could find many more examples: they would always lead to the 
same conclusions. In defining woman, each writer defines his general 
ethic and the singular idea he has of himself: it is also in her that he 
often registers the distance between his view of the world and his 
egotistical dreams. The absence or insignificance of the female 
element in a body of work in general is itself symptomatic; it has an 
extreme importance when it sums up in its totality all the aspects of 
the Other, as it does for Lawrence; it remains important if woman is 
grasped simply as another but the writer is interested in her life's 
individual adventure, which is Stendhal's case; it loses importance in 
a period like ours in which each individual's particular problems are 


of secondary import. However, woman as other still plays a role 
inasmuch as even to transcend himself, each man still needs to take 
consciousness of himself. 

X.Pitie pour les femtnes (Pity for Women). 
2. Ibid. 

3 . Le songe (The Dream). 
A.Pityfo r Wo men . 

5. The Girls. 

6. Ibid. 

7. Ibid. 

8. Adler considered this process the classic origin of psychoses. The individual, 
divided between a "will for power" and an "inferiority complex," sets up the greatest 
distance possible between society and himself so as to avoid the test of reality. He 
knows it would undermine the claims he can maintain only if they are hidden by bad 

9. The Dream. 
10. Ibid. 

1 1 .La petite infante de Castille (The Little Infanta of Castile). 

12. Ibid. 

13. The Girls. 

14. Ibid. 

15. Ibid. 

16. Ibid. 

17. The Little Infanta of Castile. 

18. The Dream. 

19. The Girls. 

20. Ibid. 

21. Ibid. 

22. Ibid. 
23. Ibid. 

24. Ibid. 

25. The Little Infanta of Castile. 

26. Le maitre de Santiago (The Master of Santiago). 


27. Le solstice de juin (June Solstice). 

28. Ibid. 

29. Ibid. 
30. Ibid. 

3 1 . L 'equinoxe de septembre (September Equinox). 

32. ^ the Fountains of Desire. 
33. Ibid. 

34. La possession de soi-meme (The Possession of Oneself). 

35. June Solstice. 

36. At the Fountains of Desire. 
37. Ibid. 

38. Ibid. 

39. June Solstice. 

40. "We ask for a body that would have discretionary power to stop anything it deems 
to be harmful to the essence of French human values. Some sort of an inquisition in 
the name of French human values" (ibid.). 

41. The Girls. 

42. June Solstice. 
43. Ibid. 

44. Ibid. 

45. Women in Love. 
46. Ibid. 

47. Ibid. 

48. Sons and Lovers. 

49. Women in Love. 

50. Preface to L 'amant deLady Chatterley. 
5 1 .Fantasia of the Unconscious . 

52. Ibid. 
53. Ibid. 
54. Ibid. 
55. Ibid. 
56. Ibid. 

57. Women in Love. 

58. Fantasia of the Unconscious . 


59. Women in Love. 

60. Sons and Lovers. 

61. The Plumed Serpent. 

62. With the exception of Paul in Sons and Lovers, who is the most vibrant of all. But 
that is the only novel that shows us a masculine learning experience. 

63. Partage de midi. [Break of Noon, trans. Wallace Fowlie. All other Claudel 
translations in this section are by James Lawler. — TRANS.] 

6<\.Les aventures de Sophie (The Adventures of Sophie). 

65. La cantate d trios vow (Cantata for Three Voices). 

66. Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher (Conversations in the Loir-et-Cher). 
67 .Le Soulier desatin (TheSatin Slipper). 

68. L'annonce faite a Marie (The Tidings Brought to Mary). 

69. The Adventures of Sophie. 

70 . L'echange (The Trade). 

71. The Adventures of Sophie. 

ll.L'oiseau noir dans le soleil levant (The Black Bird in the Rising Sun). 
73. TheSatin Slipper. 

1 '4. Positions et propositions (Positions and Propositions). 
15. La ville (The City). 
76. The Satin Slipper. 
77. Ibid. 

78. The Tidings Brought to Mary. 

79. La jeune fille Violaine (The Young Violaine) 

80. The City. 

8 1 . The Satin Slipper. 

82. Ibid. 

83. The City. 

84. Le pain dur (Crusts). 

85. The City. 

86. Break of Noon. 

87. Cantata for Three Voices. 
88. Ibid. 

89. Ibid. 


90. Positions and Propositions, Volume 2. 

9 1 . The Satin Slipper. 

92. L'histoire de Tobie et de Sara (The History of Toby and Sara). 

93. Le pere humilie (The Humiliation of the Father). 

94. The Satin Slipper. 

95. The Humiliation of the Father . 

96. Feuilles de saints (Leaves of Saints). 

97. The Satin Slipper. 

98. Leaves of Saints. 

99. Ibid. 

100. The Satin Slipper. 

101 . Positions and Propositions, Volume 1 . 

102. The Satin Slipper. 

103. The Humiliation of the Father. 

104. L 'otage (The Hostage). 

105. The City. 

106. The Trade. 

107. Ibid. 

108. The Hostage. 

109. Ibid. 

110. The Satin Slipper. 

111. Ibid. 

112. Ibid. 
113. Ibid. 

1 14. The Young Violaine. 

115. The Satin Slipper. 

116. Breton's italics. 

* Arthur Rimbaud, "Vagabonds," in Illuminations, and "Adieu" ("Farewell") in Une 
saison en enfer (A Season in Hell). — TRANS. 

117. Breton's italics. 

118. Breton's italics. 

119. Stendhal's emphasis. 

* L'esprit de serieux: conventional thinking. — TRANS. 


120. Stendhal judged in advance the cruelties with which Montherlant amuses 
himself: "In indifference, what should be done? Love-taste, but without the horrors. 
The horrors always come from a little soul that needs reassurance of its own merits." 

121. Nadja. 



The myth of woman plays a significant role in literature; but what is 
its importance in everyday life? To what extent does it affect 
individual social customs and behavior? To reply to this question, we 
will need to specify the relation of this myth to reality. 

There are different kinds of myths. This one, sublimating an 
immutable aspect of the human condition — that is, the "division" of 
humanity into two categories of individuals — is a static myth; it 
projects into a Platonic heaven a reality grasped through experience or 
conceptualized from experience; for fact, value, significance, notion, 
and empirical law, it substitutes a transcendent Idea, timeless, 
immutable, and necessary. This idea escapes all contention because it 
is situated beyond the given; it is endowed with an absolute truth. 
Thus, to the dispersed, contingent, and multiple existence of women, 
mythic thinking opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and fixed; if the 
definition given is contradicted by the behavior of real flesh-and- 
blood women, it is women who are wrong: it is said not that 
Femininity is an entity but that women are not feminine. Experiential 
denials cannot do anything against myth. Though in a way, its source 
is in experience. It is thus true that woman is other than man, and this 
alterity is concretely felt in desire, embrace, and love; but the real 
relation is one of reciprocity; as such, it gives rise to authentic dramas: 
through eroticism, love, friendship, and their alternatives of 
disappointment, hatred, and rivalry, the relation is a struggle of 
consciousnesses, each of which wants to be essential, it is the 
recognition of freedoms that confirm each other, it is the undefined 
passage from enmity to complicity. To posit the Woman is to posit the 
absolute Other, without reciprocity, refusing, against experience, that 
she could be a subject, a peer. 

In concrete reality, women manifest themselves in many different 
ways; but each of the myths built around woman tries to summarize 
her as a whole; each is supposed to be unique; the consequence of this 
is a multiplicity of incompatible myths, and men are perplexed before 


the strange inconsistencies of the idea of Femininity; as every woman 
enters into many of these archetypes, each of which claims to 
incarnate its Truth alone, men also find the same old confusion before 
their companions as did the Sophists, who had difficulty 
understanding how a person could be light and dark at the same time. 
The transition to the absolute shows up in social representations: 
relations are quickly fixed in classes, and roles in types, just as, for 
the childlike mentality, relations are fixed in things. For example, 
patriarchal society, focused on preserving the patrimony, necessarily 
implies, in addition to individuals who hold and transmit goods, the 
existence of men and women who wrest them from their owners and 
circulate them; men — adventurers, crooks, thieves, speculators — are 
generally repudiated by the group; women using their sexual attraction 
can lure young people and even family men into dissipating their 
patrimony, all within the law; they appropriate men's fortunes or seize 
their inheritance; this role being considered bad, women who play it 
are called "bad women." But in other families — those of their fathers, 
brothers, husbands, or lovers — they can in fact seem like guardian 
angels; the courtesan who swindles rich financiers is a patroness of 
painters and writers. The ambiguity of personalities like Apasia and 
Mme de Pompadour is easy to understand as a concrete experience. 
But if woman is posited as the Praying Mantis, the Mandrake, or the 
Demon, then the mind reels to discover in her the Muse, the Goddess 
Mother, and Beatrice as well. 

As group representation and social types are generally defined by 
pairs of opposite terms, ambivalence will appear to be an intrinsic 
property of the Eternal Feminine. The saintly mother has its 
correlation in the cruel stepmother, the angelic young girl has the 
perverse virgin: so Mother will be said sometimes to equal Life and 
sometimes Death, and every virgin is either a pure spirit or flesh 
possessed by the devil. 

It is obviously not reality that dictates to society or individuals their 
choices between the two opposing principles of unification; in every 
period, in every case, society and individual decide according to their 
needs. Very often they project the values and institutions to which 
they adhere onto the myth they adopt. Thus paternalism that calls for 
woman to stay at home defines her as sentiment, interiority, and 
immanence; in fact, every existent is simultaneously immanence and 


transcendence; when he is offered no goal, or is prevented from 
reaching any goal, or denied the victory of it, his transcendence falls 
uselessly into the past, that is, it falls into immanence; this is the lot 
assigned to women in patriarchy; but this is in no way a vocation, any 
more than slavery is the slave's vocation. The development of this 
mythology is all too clear in Auguste Comte. To identify Woman with 
Altruism is to guarantee man absolute rights to her devotion; it is to 
impose on women a categorical must-be. 

The myth must not be confused with the grasp of a signification; 
signification is immanent in the object; it is revealed to consciousness 
in a living experience, whereas the myth is a transcendent Idea that 
escapes any act of consciousness. When Michel Leiris in L 'age 
d'homme (Manhood) describes his vision of female organs, he 
provides significations and does not develop a myth. Wonder at the 
feminine body and disgust for menstrual blood are apprehensions of a 
concrete reality. There is nothing mythical in the experience of 
discovering the voluptuous qualities of feminine flesh, and expressing 
these qualities by comparisons to flowers or pebbles does not turn 
them into myth. But to say that Woman is Flesh, to say that Flesh is 
Night and Death, or that she is the splendor of the cosmos, is to leave 
terrestrial truth behind and spin off into an empty sky. After all, man 
is also flesh for woman; and woman is other than a carnal object; and 
for each person and in each experience the flesh is takes on singular 
significations. It is likewise perfectly true that woman — like man — is 
a being rooted in nature; she is more enslaved to the species than the 
male is, her animality is more manifest; but in her as in him, the given 
is taken on by existence; she also belongs to the human realm. 
Assimilating her with Nature is simply a prejudice. 

Few myths have been more advantageous to the ruling master caste 
than this one: it justifies all its privileges and even authorizes taking 
advantage of them. Men do not have to care about alleviating the 
suffering and burdens that are physiologically women's lot since they 
are "intended by Nature"; they take this as a pretext to increase the 
misery of the woman's condition — for example, by denying woman 
the right to sexual pleasure, or making her work like a beast of 
burden. 1 

Of all these myths, none is more anchored in masculine hearts than 
the feminine "mystery." It has numerous advantages. And first it 


allows an easy explanation for anything that is inexplicable; the man 
who does not "understand" a woman is happy to replace his 
subjective deficiency with an objective resistance; instead of admitting 
his ignorance, he recognizes the presence of a mystery exterior to 
himself: here is an excuse that flatters his laziness and vanity at the 
same time. An infatuated heart thus avoids many disappointments: if 
the loved one's behavior is capricious, her remarks stupid, the 
mystery serves as an excuse. And thanks to the mystery, this negative 
relation that seemed to Kierkegaard infinitely preferable to positive 
possession is perpetuated; faced with a living enigma, man remains 
alone: alone with his dreams, hopes, fears, love, vanity; this subjective 
game that can range from vice to mystical ecstasy is for many a more 
attractive experience than an authentic relation with a human being. 
Upon what bases does such a profitable illusion rest? 

Surely, in a way, woman is mysterious, "mysterious like 
everyone," according to Maeterlinck. Each one is subject only for 
himself; each one can grasp only his own self in his immanence; from 
this point of view, the other is always mystery. In men's view, the 
opacity of the for-itself is more flagrant in the feminine other; they are 
unable to penetrate her unique experience by any effect of sympathy; 
they are condemned to ignorance about the quality of woman's sexual 
pleasure, the discomforts of menstruation, and the pains of childbirth. 
The truth is that mystery is reciprocal: as another, and as a masculine 
other, there is also a presence closed on itself and impenetrable to 
woman in the heart of every man; she is without knowledge of male 
eroticism. But according to a universal rule already mentioned, the 
categories in which men think the world are constituted from their 
point of view as absolutes: they fail to understand reciprocity here as 
everywhere. As she is mystery for man, woman is regarded as 
mystery in herself. 

It is true that her situation especially disposes her to be seen in this 
image. Her physiological destiny is very complex; she herself endures 
it as a foreign story; her body is not for her a clear expression of 
herself; she feels alienated from it; the link that for every individual 
joins physiological to psychic life — in other words, the relation 
between the facticity of an individual and the freedom that assumes it 
— is the most difficult enigma brought about by the human condition: 
for woman, this enigma is posed in the most disturbing way. 


But what is called mystery is not the subjective solitude of 
consciousness, or the secret of organic life. The word's true meaning 
is found at the level of communication: it cannot be reduced to pure 
silence, to obscurity, to absence; it implies an emerging presence that 
fails to appear. To say that woman is mystery is to say not that she is 
silent but that her language is not heard; she is there, but hidden 
beneath veils; she exists beyond these uncertain appearances. Who is 
she? An angel, a demon, an inspiration, an actress? One supposes that 
either there are answers impossible to uncover or none is adequate 
because a fundamental ambiguity affects the feminine being; in her 
heart she is indefinable for herself: a sphinx. 

The fact is, deciding who she is would be quite awkward for her; 
the question has no answer; but it is not that the hidden truth is too 
fluctuating to be circumscribed: in this area there is no truth. An 
existent is nothing other than what he does; the possible does not 
exceed the real, essence does not precede existence: in his pure 
subjectivity, the human being is nothing. He is measured by his acts. 
It can be said that a peasant woman is a good or bad worker, that an 
actress has or does not have talent: but if a woman is considered in 
her immanent presence, absolutely nothing can be said about that, she 
is outside of the realm of qualification. Now, in amorous or conjugal 
relations and in all relations where woman is the vassal, the Other, she 
is grasped in her immanence. It is striking that the woman friend, 
colleague, or associate is without mystery; on the other hand, if the 
vassal is male and if, in front of an older and richer man or woman, a 
young man, for example, appears as the inessential object, he also is 
surrounded in mystery. And this uncovers for us an infrastructure of 
feminine mystery that is economic. A sentiment cannot be something, 
either. "In the domain of feeling, what is real is indistinguishable from 
what is imaginary," writes Gide. 'And it is sufficient to imagine one 
loves, in order to love, so it is sufficient to say to oneself that when 
one loves one imagines one loves, in order to love a little less." There 
is no discriminating between the imaginary and the real except 
through behavior. As man holds a privileged place in this world, he is 
the one who is able actively to display his love; very often he keeps 
the woman, or at least he helps her out; in marrying her, he gives her 
social status; he gives her gifts; his economic and social independence 
permits his endeavors and innovations: separated from Mme de 


Villeparisis, M. de Norpois takes twenty-four-hour trips to be with 
her; very often he is busy and she is idle: he gives her the time he 
spends with her; she takes it: with pleasure, passion, or simply for 
entertainment? Does she accept these benefits out of love or out of 
one interest? Does she love husband or marriage? Of course, even the 
proof man gives is ambiguous: Is such a gift given out of love or 
pity? But while normally woman finds numerous advantages in 
commerce with man, commerce with woman is profitable to man only 
inasmuch as he loves her. Thus, the degree of his attachment to her 
can be roughly estimated by his general attitude, while woman barely 
has the means to sound out her own heart; according to her moods 
she will take different points of view about her own feelings, and as 
long as she submits to them passively, no interpretation will be truer 
than another. In the very rare cases where it is she who holds the 
economic and social privileges, the mystery is reversed: this proves 
that it is not linked to this sex rather than to the other but to a situation. 
For many women, the roads to transcendence are blocked: because 
they do nothing, they do not make themselves be anything; they 
wonder indefinitely what they could have become, which leads them 
to wonder what they are: it is a useless questioning; if man fails to 
find that secret essence, it is simply because it does not exist. Kept at 
the margins of the world, woman cannot be defined objectively 
through this world, and her mystery conceals nothing but emptiness. 

Furthermore, like all oppressed people, woman deliberately 
dissimulates her objective image; slave, servant, indigent, all those 
who depend upon a master's whims have learned to present him with 
an immutable smile or an enigmatic impassivity; they carefully hide 
their real feelings and behavior. Woman is also taught from 
adolescence to lie to men, to outsmart, to sidestep them. She 
approaches them with artificial expressions; she is prudent, 
hypocritical, playacting. 

But feminine Mystery as recognized by mythical thinking is a more 
profound reality. In fact, it is immediately implied in the mythology of 
the absolute Other. If one grants that the inessential consciousness is 
also a transparent subjectivity, capable of carrying out the cogito, one 
grants that it is truly sovereign and reverts to the essential; for all 
reciprocity to seem impossible, it is necessary that the Other be 
another for itself, that its very subjectivity be affected by alterity; this 


consciousness, which would be alienated as consciousness, in its pure 
immanent presence, would obviously be a Mystery; it would be a 
Mystery in itself because it would be it for itself; it would be absolute 
Mystery. It is thus that, beyond the secrecy their dissimulation creates, 
there is a mystery of the Black, of the Yellow, insofar as they are 
considered absolutely as the inessential Other. It must be noted that 
the American citizen who deeply confounds the average European is 
nonetheless not considered "mysterious": one more modestly claims 
not to understand him; likewise, woman does not always 
"understand" man, but there is no masculine mystery; the fact is that 
rich America and the male are on the side of the Master, and Mystery 
belongs to the slave. 

Of course, one can only dream about the positive reality of the 
Mystery in the twilight of bad faith; like certain marginal 
hallucinations, it dissolves once one tries to pin it down. Literature 
always fails to depict "mysterious" women; they can only appear at 
the beginning of a novel as strange and enigmatic; but unless the story 
remains unfinished, they give up their secret in the end and become 
consistent and translucent characters. The heroes in Peter Cheyney's 
books, for example, never cease to be amazed by women's 
unpredictable caprices; one can never guess how they will behave, 
they confound all calculations; in truth, as soon as the workings of 
their actions are exposed to the reader, they are seen as very simple 
mechanisms: this one is a spy or that one a thief; however clever the 
intrigue, there is always a key, and it could not be otherwise, even if 
the author had all the talent, all the imagination possible. Mystery is 
never more than a mirage; it vanishes as soon as one tries to approach 

Thus we see that myths are explained in large part by the use man 
makes of them. The myth of the woman is a luxury. It can appear only 
if man escapes the imperious influence of his needs; the more 
relations are lived concretely, the less idealized they are. The fellah in 
ancient Egypt, the bedouin peasant, the medieval artisan, and the 
worker of today, in their work needs and their poverty, have relations 
with the particular woman who is their companion that are too basic 
for them to embellish her with an auspicious or fatal aura. Eras and 
social classes that had the leisure to daydream were the ones who 
created the black-and-white statues of femininity. But luxury also has 


its usefulness; these dreams were imperiously guided by interest. Yes, 
most myths have their roots in man's spontaneous attitude to his own 
existence and the world that invests it: but the move to surpass 
experience toward the transcendent Idea was deliberately effected by 
patriarchal society for the end of self-justification; through myths, this 
society imposed its laws and customs on individuals in an imagistic 
and sensible way; it is in a mythical form that the group imperative 
insinuated itself into each consciousness. By way of religions, 
traditions, language, tales, songs, and film, myths penetrate even into 
the existence of those most harshly subjected to material realities. 
Everyone can draw on myth to sublimate his own modest 
experiences: betrayed by a woman he loves, one man calls her a slut; 
another is obsessed by his own virile impotence: this woman is a 
praying mantis; yet another takes pleasure in his wife's company: here 
we have Harmony, Repose, Mother Earth. The taste for eternity at 
bargain prices and for a handy, pocket-sized absolute, seen in most 
men, is satisfied by myths. The least emotion, a small disagreement, 
become the reflection of a timeless Idea; this illusion comfortably 
flatters one's vanity. 

The myth is one of those traps of false objectivity into which the 
spirit of seriousness falls headlong. It is once again a matter of 
replacing lived experience and the free judgments of experience it 
requires by a static idol. The myth of Woman substitutes for an 
authentic relationship with an autonomous existent the immobile 
contemplation of a mirage. "Mirage! Mirage! Kill them since we 
cannot seize them; or else reassure them, instruct them, help them give 
up their taste for jewelry, make them real equal companions, our 
intimate friends, associates in the here and now, dress them 
differently, cut their hair, tell them everything," cried Laforgue. Man 
would have nothing to lose, quite the contrary, if he stopped 
disguising woman as a symbol. Dreams, when collective and 
controlled — cliches — are so poor and monotonous compared to living 
reality: for the real dreamer, for the poet, living reality is a far more 
generous resource than a worn-out fantasy. The times when women 
were the most sincerely cherished were not courtly feudal ones, nor 
the gallant nineteenth century; they were the times — the eighteenth 
century, for example — when men regarded women as their peers; this 
is when women looked truly romantic: only readies liaisons 


dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), Le rouge et le noir {The Red and 
the Black), or A Farewell to Arms to realize this. Laclos' heroines like 
Stendhal's and Hemingway's are without mystery: and they are no 
less engaging for it. To recognize a human being in a woman is not to 
impoverish man's experience: that experience would lose none of its 
diversity, its richness, or its intensity if it was taken on in its 
intersubjectivity; to reject myths is not to destroy all dramatic relations 
between the sexes, it is not to deny the significations authentically 
revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to eliminate poetry, 
love, adventure, happiness, and dreams: it is only to ask that behavior, 
feelings, and passion be grounded in truth. 2 

"Woman is lost. Where are the women? Today's women are not 
women"; we have seen what these mysterious slogans mean. In the 
eyes of men — and of the legions of women who see through these 
eyes — it is not enough to have a woman's body or to take on the 
female function as lover and mother to be a "real woman"; it is 
possible for the subject to claim autonomy through sexuality and 
maternity; the "real woman" is one who accepts herself as Other. The 
duplicitous attitude of men today creates a painful split for women; 
they accept, for the most part, that woman be a peer, an equal; and yet 
they continue to oblige her to remain the inessential; for her, these two 
destinies are not reconcilable; she hesitates between them without 
being exactly suited to either, and that is the source of her lack of 
balance. For man, there is no hiatus between public and private life: 
the more he asserts his grasp on the world through action and work, 
the more virile he looks; human and vital characteristics are merged in 
him; but women's own successes are in contradiction with her 
femininity since the "real woman" is required to make herself object, 
to be the Other. It is very possible that on this point even men's 
sensibility and sexuality are changing. A new aesthetic has already 
been born. Although the fashion for flat chests and narrow hips — the 
boyish woman — only lasted a short while, the opulent ideal of past 
centuries has nevertheless not returned. The feminine body is 
expected to be flesh, but discreetly so; it must be slim and not 
burdened with fat; toned, supple, robust, it has to suggest 
transcendence; it is preferred tanned, having been bared to a universal 
sun like a worker's torso, not white like a hothouse plant. Woman's 
clothes, in becoming more practical, have not made her look asexual: 


on the contrary, short skirts have shown off her legs and thighs more 
than before. There is no reason for work to deprive her of her erotic 
appeal. To see woman as both a social person and carnal prey can be 
disturbing: in a recent series of drawings by Peynet, 3 there is a young 
fiance deserting his fiancee because he was seduced by the pretty 
mayoress about to celebrate the marriage; that a woman could hold a 
"man's office" and still be desirable has long been a subject of more 
or less dirty jokes; little by little, scandal and irony have lost their bite 
and a new form of eroticism seems to be coming about: perhaps it will 
produce new myths. 

What is certain is that today it is very difficult for women to assume 
both their status of autonomous individual and their feminine destiny; 
here is the source of the awkwardness and discomfort that sometimes 
leads them to be considered "a lost sex." And without doubt it is more 
comfortable to endure blind bondage than to work for one's 
liberation; the dead, too, are better suited to the earth than the living. In 
any case, turning back is no more possible than desirable. What must 
be hoped is that men will assume, without reserve, the situation being 
created; only then can women experience it without being torn. Then 
will Laforgue's wish be fulfilled: "O young women, when will you 
be our brothers, our closest brothers without ulterior motives of 
exploitation? When will we give to each other a true handshake?" 
Then "Melusina, no longer under the burden of the fate unleashed on 
her by man alone, Melusina rescued," will find "her human base." 4 
Then will she fully be a human being, "when woman's infinite 
servitude is broken, when she lives for herself and by herself, man — 
abominable until now — giving her her freedom." 5 

1 . Cf. Balzac, Physiology of Marriage: "Do not trouble yourself in any way about her 
murmurings, her cries, her pains; nature has made her for your use, made her to bear all: 
the children, the worries, the blows, and the sorrows of man. But do not accuse us of 
harshness. In the codes of all the so-called civilised nations, man has written the laws 
which rule the destiny of woman beneath this blood inscription: Vae victis! Woe to the 

2. Laforgue goes on to say about woman: "As she has been left in slavery, idleness, 
without arms other than her sex, she has overdeveloped it and has become the 
Feminine ... we have permitted her to overdevelop; she is on the earth for us ... Well, 


that is all wrong ... we have played doll with the woman until now. This has gone on 

too long!" 

3. November 1948. 

4 .Breton, Arcanum 1 7. 

5. Rimbaud, to Paul Demeny, May 15, 1871. 



Lived Experience 


What a curse to be a woman! And yet the very 
worst curse when one is a woman is, in fact, not 
to understand that it is one. 


Half victim, half accomplice, like everyone. 




Women of today are overthrowing the myth of femininity; they are 
beginning to affirm their independence concretely; but their success in 
living their human condition completely does not come easily. As they 
are brought up by women, in the heart of a feminine world, their 
normal destiny is marriage, which still subordinates them to man from 
a practical point of view; virile prestige is far from being eradicated: it 
still stands on solid economic and social bases. It is thus necessary to 
study woman's traditional destiny carefully. What I will try to 
describe is how woman is taught to assume her condition, how she 
experiences this, what universe she finds herself enclosed in, and 
what escape mechanisms are permitted her. Only then can we 
understand what problems women — heirs to a weighty past, striving 
to forge a new future — are faced with. When I use the word "woman" 
or "feminine," I obviously refer to no archetype, to no immutable 
essence; "in the present state of education and customs" must be 
understood to follow most of my affirmations. There is no question of 
expressing eternal truths here, but of describing the common ground 
from which all singular feminine existence stems. 







One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, 
or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on 
in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary 
product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine. Only 
the mediation of another can constitute an individual as an Other. 
Inasmuch as he exists for himself, the child would not grasp himself 
as sexually differentiated. For girls and boys, the body is first the 
radiation of a subjectivity, the instrument that brings about the 
comprehension of the world: they apprehend the universe through 
their eyes and hands, and not through their sexual parts. The drama of 
birth and weaning takes place in the same way for infants of both 
sexes; they have the same interests and pleasures; sucking is the first 
source of their most pleasurable sensations; they then go through an 
anal phase in which they get their greatest satisfactions from excretory 
functions common to both; their genital development is similar; they 
explore their bodies with the same curiosity and the same indifference; 
they derive the same uncertain pleasure from the clitoris and the penis; 
insofar as their sensibility already needs an object, it turns toward the 
mother: it is the soft, smooth, supple feminine flesh that arouses 
sexual desires, and these desires are prehensile; the girl like the boy 
kisses, touches, and caresses her mother in an aggressive manner; 
they feel the same jealousy at the birth of a new child; they show it 
with the same behavior: anger, sulking, urinary problems; they have 
recourse to the same coquetry to gain the love of adults. Up to twelve, 
the girl is just as sturdy as her brothers; she shows the same 
intellectual aptitudes; she is not barred from competing with them in 
any area. If well before puberty and sometimes even starting from 
early childhood she already appears sexually specified, it is not 
because mysterious instincts immediately destine her to passivity, 
coquetry, or motherhood but because the intervention of others in the 


infant's life is almost originary, and her vocation is imperiously 
breathed into her from the first years of her life. 

The world is first present to the newborn only in the form of 
immanent sensations; he is still immersed within the Whole as he was 
when he was living in the darkness of a womb; whether raised on the 
breast or on a bottle, he is invested with the warmth of maternal flesh. 
Little by little he learns to perceive objects as distinct from himself: he 
separates himself from them; at the same time, more or less suddenly, 
he is removed from the nourishing body; sometimes he reacts to this 
separation with a violent fit; 1 in any case, when it is consummated — 
around six months — he begins to manifest the desire to seduce others 
by mimicking, which then turns into a real display. Of course, this 
attitude is not defined by a reflective choice; but it is not necessary to 
think a situation to exist it. In an immediate way the newborn lives the 
primeval drama of every existent — that is, the drama of one's relation 
to the Other. Man experiences his abandonment in anguish. Fleeing 
his freedom and subjectivity, he would like to lose himself within the 
Whole: here is the origin of his cosmic and pantheistic reveries, of his 
desire for oblivion, sleep, ecstasy, and death. He never manages to 
abolish his separated self: at the least he wishes to achieve the solidity 
of the in-itself, to be petrified in thing; it is uniquely when he is fixed 
by the gaze of others that he appears to himself as a being. It is in this 
vein that the child's behavior has to be interpreted: in a bodily form he 
discovers finitude, solitude, and abandonment in an alien world; he 
tries to compensate for this catastrophe by alienating his existence in 
an image whose reality and value will be established by others. It 
would seem that from the time he recognizes his reflection in a mirror 
— a time that coincides with weaning — he begins to affirm his 
identity: 2 his self merges with this reflection in such a way that it is 
formed only by alienating itself. Whether the mirror as such plays a 
more or less considerable role, what is sure is that the child at about 
six months of age begins to understand his parents' miming and to 
grasp himself under their gaze as an object. He is already an 
autonomous subject transcending himself toward the world: but it is 
only in an alienated form that he will encounter himself. 

When the child grows up, he fights against his original 
abandonment in two ways. He tries to deny the separation: he crushes 
himself in his mother's arms, he seeks her loving warmth, he wants 


her caresses. And he tries to win the approbation of others in order to 
justify himself. Adults are to him as gods: they have the power to 
confer being on him. He experiences the magic of the gaze that 
metamorphoses him now into a delicious little angel and now into a 
monster. These two modes of defense are not mutually exclusive: on 
the contrary, they complete and infuse each other. When seduction is 
successful, the feeling of justification finds physical confirmation in 
the kisses and caresses received: it is the same contented passivity that 
the child experiences in his mother's lap and under her benevolent 
eyes. During the first three or four years of life, there is no difference 
between girls' and boys' attitudes; they all try to perpetuate the happy 
state preceding weaning; both boys and girls show the same behavior 
of seduction and display. Boys are just as desirous as their sisters to 
please, to be smiled at, to be admired. 

It is more satisfying to deny brutal separation than to overcome it, 
more radical to be lost in the heart of the Whole than to be petrified by 
the consciousness of others: carnal fusion creates a deeper alienation 
than any abdication under the gaze of another. Seduction and display 
represent a more complex and less easy stage than the simple 
abandonment in maternal arms. The magic of the adult gaze is 
capricious; the child pretends to be invisible, his parents play the 
game, grope around for him, they laugh, and then suddenly they 
declare: "You are bothersome, you are not invisible at all." A child's 
phrase amuses, then he repeats it: this time, they shrug their 
shoulders. In this world as unsure and unpredictable as Kafka's 
universe, one stumbles at every step. 3 That is why so many children 
are afraid of growing up; they desperately want their parents to 
continue taking them on their laps, taking them into their bed: through 
physical frustration they experience ever more cruelly that 
abandonment of which the human being never becomes aware 
without anguish. 

It is here that little girls first appear privileged. A second weaning, 
slower and less brutal than the first one, withdraws the mother's body 
from the child's embraces; but little by little boys are the ones who are 
denied kisses and caresses; the little girl continues to be doted upon, 
she is allowed to hide behind her mother's skirts, her father takes her 
on his knees and pats her hair; she is dressed in dresses as lovely as 
kisses, her tears and whims are treated indulgently, her hair is done 


carefully, her expressions and affectations amuse: physical contact 
and complaisant looks protect her against the anxiety of solitude. For 
the little boy, on the other hand, even affectations are forbidden; his 
attempts at seduction, his games irritate. "A man doesn't ask for 
kisses ... A man doesn't look at himself in the mirror ... A man 
doesn't cry," he is told. He has to be "a little man"; he obtains adults' 
approbation by freeing himself from them. He will please by not 
seeming to seek to please. 

Many boys, frightened by the harsh independence they are 
condemned to, thus desire to be girls; in times when they were first 
dressed as girls, they cried when they had to give dresses up for long 
pants and had to have their curls cut. Some obstinately would choose 
femininity, which is one of the ways of gravitating toward 
homosexuality: "I wanted passionately to be a girl, and I was 
unconscious of the grandeur of being a man to the point of trying to 
urinate sitting down," Maurice Sachs recounts. 4 However, if the boy 
at first seems less favored than his sisters, it is because there are 
greater designs for him. The requirements he is subjected to 
immediately imply a higher estimation. In his memoirs, Maurras 
recounts that he was jealous of a cadet his mother and grandmother 
doted upon; his father took him by the hand and out of the room. "We 
are men; let's leave these women," he told him. The child is persuaded 
that more is demanded of boys because of their superiority; the pride 
of his virility is breathed into him in order to encourage him in this 
difficult path; this abstract notion takes on a concrete form for him: it 
is embodied in the penis; he does not experience pride spontaneously 
in his little indolent sex organ; but he feels it through the attitude of 
those around him. Mothers and wet nurses perpetuate the tradition 
that assimilates phallus and maleness; whether they recognize its 
prestige in amorous gratitude or in submission, or that they gain 
revenge by seeing it in the baby in a reduced form, they treat the 
child's penis with a singular deference. Rabelais reports on 
Gargantua's wet nurses' games and words; 5 history has recorded 
those of Louis XIII's wet nurses. Less daring women, however, give 
a friendly name to the little boy's sex organ, they speak to him about it 
as of a little person who is both himself and other than himself; they 
make of it, according to the words already cited, "an alter ego usually 
craftier, more intelligent, and more clever than the individual." 6 


Anatomically, the penis is totally apt to play this role; considered 
apart from the body, it looks like a little natural plaything, a kind of 
doll. The child is esteemed by esteeming his double. A father told me 
that one of his sons at the age of three was still urinating sitting down; 
surrounded by sisters and girl cousins, he was a shy and sad child; 
one day his father took him with him to the toilet and said: "I will 
show you how men do it." From then on, the child, proud to be 
urinating standing up, scorned the girls "who urinated through a 
hole"; his scorn came originally not from the fact that they were 
lacking an organ but that they had not like him been singled out and 
initiated by the father. So, far from the penis being discovered as an 
immediate privilege from which the boy would draw a feeling of 
superiority, its value seems, on the contrary, like a compensation — 
invented by adults and fervently accepted by the child — for the 
hardships of the last weaning: in that way he is protected against 
regret that he is no longer a breast-feeding baby or a girl. From then 
on, he will embody his transcendence and his arrogant sovereignty in 
his sex. 7 

The girl's lot is very different. Mothers and wet nurses have neither 
reverence nor tenderness for her genital parts; they do not focus 
attention on this secret organ of which only the outside envelope can 
be seen and that cannot be taken hold of; in one sense, she does not 
have a sex. She does not experience this absence as a lack; her body is 
evidently a plenitude for her; but she finds herself in the world 
differently from the boy; and a group of factors can transform this 
difference into inferiority in her eyes. 

Few questions are as much discussed by psychoanalysts as the 
famous "female castration complex." Most accept today that penis 
envy manifests itself in very different ways depending on the 
individual case. 8 First, many girls are ignorant of male anatomy until 
an advanced age. The child accepts naturally that there are men and 
women as there are a sun and a moon: she believes in essences 
contained in words, and his curiosity is at first not analytical. For 
many others, this little piece of flesh hanging between boys' legs is 
insignificant or even derisory; it is a particularity like that of clothes 
and hairstyle; often the female child discovers it at a younger brother's 
birth, and "when the little girl is very young," says Helene Deutsch, 
"she is not impressed by her younger brother's penis"; she cites the 


example of an eighteen-month-old girl who remained absolutely 
indifferent to the discovery of the penis and did not give it any value 
until much later, in connection with her personal preoccupations. The 
penis can even be considered an anomaly: it is a growth, a vague 
hanging thing like nodules, teats, and warts; it can inspire disgust. 
Lastly, the fact is that there are many cases of the little girl being 
interested in a brother's or a friend's penis; but that does not mean she 
experiences a specifically sexual jealousy and even less that she feels 
deeply moved by the absence of this organ; she desires to appropriate 
it for herself as she desires to appropriate any object; but this desire 
may remain superficial. 

It is certain that the excretory function and particularly the urinary 
one interest children passionately: wetting the bed is often a protest 
against the parents' marked preference for another child. There are 
countries where men urinate sitting down, and there are women who 
urinate standing up: this is the way among many women peasants; but 
in contemporary Western society, custom generally has it that they 
squat, while the standing position is reserved to males. This is the 
most striking sexual difference for the little girl. To urinate she has to 
squat down, remove some clothes, and above all hide, a shameful and 
uncomfortable servitude. Shame increases in the frequent cases in 
which she suffers from involuntary urinary emissions, when bursting 
out laughing, for example; control is worse than for boys. For them, 
the urinary function is like a free game with the attraction of all games 
in which freedom is exercised; the penis can be handled, through it 
one can act, which is one of the child's deep interests. A little girl 
seeing a boy urinate declared admiringly: "How practical!" 9 The 
stream can be aimed at will, the urine directed far away: the boy draws 
a feeling of omnipotence from it. Freud spoke of "the burning 
ambition of early diuretics"; Stekel discussed this formula sensibly, 
but it is true that, as Karen Horney says, "fantasies of omnipotence, 
especially of a sadistic character, are as a matter of fact more easily 
associated with the jet of urine passed by the male"; 10 there are many 
such fantasies in children, and they survive in some men. 1 1 Abraham 
speaks of "the great pleasure women experience watering the garden 
with a hose"; I think, in agreement with Sartre's and Bachelard's 
theories, 12 that it is not necessarily the assimilation of the hose with 


the penis that is the source of pleasure; 13 every stream of water seems 
like a miracle, a defiance of gravity: directing or governing it means 
carrying off a little victory over natural laws; in any case, for the little 
boy there is a daily amusement that is impossible for his sisters. He is 
also able to establish many relations with things through the urinary 
stream, especially in the countryside: water, earth, moss, snow. There 
are little girls who lie on their backs and try to practice urinating "in 
the air" or who try to urinate standing up in order to have these 
experiences. According to Karen Horney, they also envy the 
opportunity to exhibit that the boy is granted. A sick woman suddenly 
exclaimed, after seeing a man urinating in the street: "If I might ask a 
gift of Providence, it would be to be able just for once to urinate like a 
man," Karen Horney reports. It seems to girls that the boy, having the 
right to touch his penis, can use it as a plaything, while their organs 
are taboo. That these factors make the possession of a male sex organ 
desirable for many of them is a fact confirmed by many studies and 
confidences gathered by psychiatrists. Havelock Ellis quotes the 
words of a patient he calls Zenia: "The noise of a jet of water, 
especially corning out of a long hose, has always been very 
stimulating for me, recalling the noise of the stream of urine observed 
in childhood in my brother and even in other people." 14 Another 
woman, Mrs. R.S., recounts that as a child she absolutely loved 
holding a little friend's penis in her hands; one day she was given a 
hose: "It seemed delicious to hold that as if I was holding a penis." 
She emphasized that the penis had no sexual meaning for her; she 
only knew its urinary usage. The most interesting case, that of Florrie, 
is reported by Havelock Ellis and later analyzed by Stekel. 15 Here is a 
detailed account from it. 

The woman concerned is very intelligent, artistic, active, 
biologically normal, and not homosexual. She says that the 
urinary function played a great role in her childhood; she played 
urinary games with her brothers, and they wet their hands 
without feeling disgust. "My earliest ideas of the superiority of 
the male were connected with urination. I felt aggrieved with 
nature because I lacked so useful and ornamental an organ. No 
teapot without a spout felt so forlorn. It required no one to instill 
into me the theory of male predominance and superiority. 


Constant proof was before me." She took great pleasure in 
urinating in the country. "Nothing could come up to the 
entrancing sound as the stream descended on crackling leaves in 
the depth of a wood and she watched its absorption. Most of all 
she was fascinated by the idea of doing it into water" [as are 
many little boys]. There is a quantity of childish and vulgar 
imagery showing little boys urinating in ponds and brooks. 
Florrie complains that the style of her knickers prevented her 
from trying various desired experiments, but often during 
country walks she would hold back as long as she could and 
then suddenly relieve herself standing. "I can distinctly 
remember the strange and delicious sensation of this forbidden 
delight, and also my puzzled feeling that it came standing." In her 
opinion, the style of children's clothing has great importance for 
feminine psychology in general. "It was not only a source of 
annoyance to me that I had to unfasten my drawers and then 
squat down for fear of wetting them in front, but the flap at the 
back, which must be removed to uncover the posterior parts 
during the act, accounts for my early impression that in girls this 
function is connected with those parts. The first distinction in sex 
that impressed me — the one great difference in sex — was that 
boys urinated standing and that girls had to sit down . . . The fact 
that my earliest feelings of shyness were more associated with 
the back than the front may have thus originated." All these 
impressions were of great importance in Florrie's case because 
her father often whipped her until the blood came and also a 
governess had once spanked her to make her urinate; she was 
obsessed by masochistic dreams and fancies in which she saw 
herself whipped by a school mistress under the eyes of all and 
having to urinate against her will, "an idea that gives one a 
curious sense of gratification." At the age of fifteen it happened 
that under urgent need she urinated standing in a deserted street. 
"In trying to analyze my sensations, I think the most prominent 
lay in the shame that came from standing, and the consequently 
greater distance the stream had to descend. It seemed to make the 
affair important and conspicuous, even though clothing hid it. In 
the ordinary attitude there is a kind of privacy. As a small child, 
too, the stream had not far to go, but at the age of fifteen I was 


tall and it seemed to give one a glow of shame to think of this 
stream falling unchecked such a distance. (I am sure that the 
ladies who fled in horror from the urinette at Portsmouth thought 
it most indecent for a woman to stand, legs apart, and to pull up 
her clothes and make a stream which descended unabashed all 
that way.)" 16 She renewed this experience at twenty and 
frequently thereafter. She felt a mixture of shame and pleasure at 
the idea that she might be surprised and that she would be 
incapable of stopping. "The stream seemed to be drawn from me 
without my consent, and yet with even more pleasure than if I 
were doing it freely 11 This curious feeling — that it is being 
drawn away by some unseen power which is determined that 
one shall do it — is an entirely feminine pleasure and a subtle 
charm . . . There is a fierce charm in the torrent that binds one to 
its will by a mighty force." Later Florrie developed a flagellatory 
eroticism always combined with urinary obsessions. 

This case is very interesting because it throws light on several 
elements of the child's experience. But of course there are particular 
circumstances that confer such a great importance upon them. For 
normally raised little girls, the boy's urinary privilege is too secondary 
a thing to engender a feeling of inferiority directly. Psychoanalysts 
following Freud who think that the mere discovery of the penis would 
be sufficient to produce a trauma seriously misunderstand the child's 
mentality; it is much less rational than they seem to think, it does not 
establish clear-cut categories and is not bothered by contradictions. 
When the little girl seeing a penis declares, "I had one too" or "Fll 
have one too," or even "I have one too," this is not a defense in bad 
faith; presence and absence are not mutually exclusive; the child — as 
his drawings prove — believes much less in what he sees with his eyes 
than in the signifying types that he has determined once and for all: he 
often draws without looking, and in any case he finds in his 
perceptions only what he puts there. Saussure, who emphasizes this 
point, quotes this very important observation of Luquet's: "Once a 
line is considered wrong, it is as if inexistent, the child literally no 
longer sees it, hypnotized in a way by the new line that replaces it, nor 
does he take into account lines that can be accidentally found on his 
paper." 18 Male anatomy constitutes a strong form that is often 


imposed on the little girl; and literally she no longer sees her own 
body. Saussure brings up the example of a four-year-old girl who, 
trying to urinate like a boy between the bars of a fence, said she 
wanted "a little long thing that runs." She affirmed at the same time 
that she had a penis and that she did not have one, which goes along 
with the thinking by "participation" that Piaget described in children. 
The little girl takes it for granted that all children are born with a penis 
but that the parents then cut some of them off to make girls; this idea 
satisfies the artificialism of the child who glorifies his parents and 
"conceives of them as the cause of everything he possesses," says 
Piaget; he does not see punishment in castration right away. For it to 
become a frustration, the little girl has to be unhappy with her 
situation for some reason; as Deutsch justly points out, an exterior 
event like the sight of a penis could not lead to an internal 
development. "The sight of the male organ can have a traumatic 
effect," she says, "but only if a chain of prior experiences that would 
create that effect had preceded it." If the little girl feels powerless to 
satisfy her desires of masturbation or exhibition, if her parents repress 
her onanism, if she feels less loved or less valued than her brothers, 
then she will project her dissatisfaction onto the male organ. "The little 
girl's discovery of the anatomical difference with the boy confirms a 
previously felt need; it is her rationalization, so to speak." 19 And 
Adler also insisted on the fact that it is the validation by the parents 
and others that gives the boy prestige, and that the penis becomes the 
explanation and symbol in the little girl's eyes. Her brother is 
considered superior; he himself takes pride in his maleness; so she 
envies him and feels frustrated. Sometimes she resents her mother and 
less often her father; either she accuses herself of being mutilated, or 
she consoles herself by thinking that the penis is hidden in her body 
and that one day it will come out. 

It is sure that the absence of a penis will play an important role in 
the little girl's destiny, even if she does not really envy those who 
possess one. The great privilege that the boy gets from it is that as he 
is bestowed with an organ that can be seen and held, he can at least 
partially alienate himself in it. He projects the mystery of his body and 
its dangers outside himself, which permits him to keep them at a 
distance: of course, he feels endangered through his penis, he fears 
castration, but this fear is easier to dominate than the pervasive overall 


fear the girl feels concerning her "insides," a fear that will often be 
perpetuated throughout her whole life as a woman. She has a deep 
concern about everything happening inside her; from the start, she is 
far more opaque to herself and more profoundly inhabited by the 
worrying mystery of life than the male. Because he recognizes himself 
in an alter ego, the little boy can boldly assume his subjectivity; the 
very object in which he alienates himself becomes a symbol of 
autonomy, transcendence, and power: he measures the size of his 
penis; he compares his urinary stream with that of his friends; later, 
erection and ejaculation will be sources of satisfaction and challenge. 
But a little girl cannot incarnate herself in any part of her own body. 
As compensation, and to fill the role of alter ego for her, she is 
handed a foreign object: a doll. Note that the bandage wrapped on an 
injured finger is also called a poupee ("doll" in French): a finger 
dressed and separate from the others is looked on with amusement 
and a kind of pride with which the child initiates the process of its 
alienation. But it is a figurine with a human face — or a corn husk or 
even a piece of wood — that will most satisfyingly replace this double, 
this natural toy, this penis. 

The great difference is that, on the one hand, the doll represents the 
whole body and, on the other hand, it is a passive thing. As such, the 
little girl will be encouraged to alienate herself in her person as a 
whole and to consider it an inert given. While the boy seeks himself in 
his penis as an autonomous subject, the little girl pampers her doll and 
dresses her as she dreams of being dressed and pampered; inversely, 
she thinks of herself as a marvelous doll. 20 Through compliments and 
admonishments, through images and words, she discovers the 
meaning of the words "pretty" and "ugly"; she soon knows that to 
please, she has to be "pretty as a picture"; she tries to resemble an 
image, she disguises herself, she looks at herself in the mirror, she 
compares herself to princesses and fairies from tales. Marie 
Bashkirtseff gives a striking example of this infantile coquetry. * It is 
certainly not by chance that, weaned late — she was three and a half — 
she fervently felt the need at the age of four or five to be admired and 
to exist for others: the shock must have been violent in a more mature 
child, and she had to struggle even harder to overcome the inflicted 
separation. "At five years old," she writes in her diary, "I would dress 
in Mummy's lace, with flowers in my hair, and I would go and dance 


in the living room. I was Petipa, the great dancer, and the whole house 
was there to look at me." 

This narcissism appears so precociously for the little girl and will 
play so fundamental a part in her life that it is readily considered as 
emanating from a mysterious feminine instinct. But we have just seen 
that in reality it is not an anatomical destiny that dictates her attitude. 
The difference that distinguishes her from boys is a fact that she could 
assume in many ways. Having a penis is certainly a privilege, but one 
whose value naturally diminishes when the child loses interest in his 
excretory functions and becomes socialized: if he retains interest in it 
past the age of eight or nine years, it is because the penis has become 
the symbol of a socially valorized virility. The fact is that the influence 
of education and society is enormous here. All children try to 
compensate for the separation of weaning by seductive and attention- 
seeking behavior; the boy is forced to go beyond this stage, he is 
saved from his narcissism by turning his attention to his penis, 
whereas the girl is reinforced in this tendency to make herself object, 
which is common to all children. The doll helps her, but it does not 
have a determining role; the boy can also treasure a teddy bear or a rag 
doll on whom he can project himself; it is in their life's overall form 
that each factor — penis, doll — takes on its importance. 

Thus, the passivity that essentially characterizes the "feminine" 
woman is a trait that develops in her from her earliest years. But it is 
false to claim that therein lies a biological given; in fact, it is a destiny 
imposed on her by her teachers and by society. The great advantage 
for the boy is that his way of existing for others leads him to posit 
himself for himself. He carries out the apprenticeship of his existence 
as free movement toward the world; he rivals other boys in toughness 
and independence; he looks down on girls. Climbing trees, fighting 
with his companions, confronting them in violent games, he grasps 
his body as a means to dominate nature and as a fighting tool; he is 
proud of his muscles, as he is of his sex organ; through games, 
sports, fights, challenges, and exploits, he finds a balanced use of his 
strength; at the same time, he learns the severe lessons of violence; he 
learns to take blows, to deride pain, to hold back tears from the 
earliest age. He undertakes, he invents, he dares. Granted, he also 
experiences himself as if "for others"; he tests his own virility, and 
consequently, trouble ensues with adults and friends. But what is very 


important is that there is no fundamental opposition between this 
objective figure that is his and his will for self-affirmation in concrete 
projects. It is by doing that he makes himself be, in one single 
movement. On the contrary, for the woman there is, from the start, a 
conflict between her autonomous existence and her "beingother"; she 
is taught that to please, she must try to please, must make herself 
object; she must therefore renounce her autonomy. She is treated like 
a living doll, and freedom is denied her; thus a vicious circle is closed; 
for the less she exercises her freedom to understand, grasp, and 
discover the world around her, the less she will find its resources, and 
the less she will dare to affirm herself as subject; if she were 
encouraged, she could show the same vibrant exuberance, the same 
curiosity, the same spirit of initiative, and the same intrepidness as the 
boy. Sometimes this does happen when she is given a male 
upbringing; she is thus spared many problems. 21 Interestingly, this is 
the kind of education that a father habitually gives his daughter; 
women brought up by a man escape many of the defects of 
femininity. But customs oppose treating girls exactly like boys. I 
knew a village where girls of three and four years old were persecuted 
because their father made them wear trousers: "Are they girls or 
boys?" And the other children tried to find out; the result was their 
pleading to wear dresses. Unless she leads a very solitary life, even if 
parents allow her to have boyish manners, the girl's companions, her 
friends, and her teachers will be shocked. There will always be aunts, 
grandmothers, and girl cousins to counterbalance the father's 
influence. Normally, his role regarding his daughters is secondary. 
One of the woman's curses — as Michelet has justly pointed out — is 
that in her childhood she is left in the hands of women. The boy is 
also brought up by his mother in the beginning; but she respects his 
maleness and he escapes from her relatively quickly, whereas the 
mother wants to integrate the girl into the feminine world. 22 

We will see later how complex the relation is between the mother 
and the daughter: for the mother, the daughter is both her double and 
an other, the mother cherishes her and at the same time is hostile to 
her; she imposes her own destiny on her child: it is a way to proudly 
claim her own femininity and also to take revenge on it. The same 
process is found with pederasts, gamblers, drug addicts, and all those 
who are flattered to belong to a certain community, and are also 


humiliated by it: they try through ardent proselytism to win over 
converts. Thus, women given the care of a little girl are bent on 
transforming her into women like themselves with zeal and arrogance 
mixed with resentment. And even a generous mother who sincerely 
wants the best for her child will, as a rule, think it wiser to make a 
"true woman" of her, as that is the way she will be best accepted by 
society. So she is given other little girls as friends, she is entrusted to 
female teachers, she lives among matrons as in the days of the 
gynaeceum, books and games are chosen for her that introduce her to 
her destiny, her ears are filled with the treasures of feminine wisdom, 
feminine virtues are presented to her, she is taught cooking, sewing, 
and housework as well as how to dress, how to take care of her 
personal appearance, charm, and modesty; she is dressed in 
uncomfortable and fancy clothes that she has to take care of, her hair 
is done in complicated styles, posture is imposed on her: stand up 
straight, don't walk like a duck; to be graceful, she has to repress 
spontaneous movements, she is told not to look like a tomboy, 
strenuous exercise is banned, she is forbidden to fight; in short, she is 
committed to becoming, like her elders, a servant and an idol. Today, 
thanks to feminism's breakthroughs, it is becoming more and more 
normal to encourage her to pursue her education, to devote herself to 
sports; but she is more easily excused for not succeeding; success is 
made more difficult for her as another kind of accomplishment is 
demanded of her: she must at least also be a woman; she must not 
lose her femininity. 

In her early years she resigns herself to this lot without much 
difficulty. The child inhabits the level of play and dream, he plays at 
being, he plays at doing; doing and being are not clearly 
distinguishable when it is a question of imaginary accomplishments. 
The little girl can compensate for boys' superiority of the moment by 
those promises inherent in her woman's destiny, which she already 
achieves in her play. Because she still only knows her childhood 
universe, her mother seems endowed with more authority than her 
father; she imagines the world as a sort of matriarchy; she imitates her 
mother, she identifies with her; often she even inverses the roles: 
"When I am big and you are little . . .," she often says. The doll is not 
only her double: it is also her child, functions that are not mutually 
exclusive insofar as the real child is also an alter ego for the mother; 


when she scolds, punishes, and then consoles her doll, she is 
defending herself against her mother, and she assumes a mother's 
dignity: she sums up both elements of the couple as she entrusts 
herself to her doll, educates her, asserts her sovereign authority over 
her, and sometimes even tears off her arms, beats her, tortures her; 
that is to say, through her she accomplishes the experience of 
subjective affirmation and alienation. Often the mother is associated 
with this imaginary life: in playing with the doll and the mother, the 
child plays both the father and the mother, a couple where the man is 
excluded. No "maternal instinct," innate and mysterious, lies therein 
either. The little girl observes that child care falls to the mother, that is 
what she is taught; stories told, books read, all her little experience 
confirms it; she is encouraged to feel delight for these future riches, 
she is given dolls so she will already feel the tangible aspect of those 
riches. Her "vocation" is determined imperiously. Because her lot 
seems to be the child, and also because she is more interested in her 
"insides" than the boy, the little girl is particularly curious about the 
mystery of procreation; she quickly ceases to believe that babies are 
born in cabbages or delivered by the stork; especially in cases where 
the mother gives her brothers or sisters, she soon learns that babies 
are formed in their mother's body. Besides, parents today make less 
of a mystery of it than before; she is generally more amazed than 
frightened because the phenomenon seems like magic to her; she does 
not yet grasp all of the physiological implications. First of all, she is 
unaware of the father's role and supposes that the woman gets 
pregnant by eating certain foods, a legendary theme (queens in fairy 
tales give birth to a little girl or a handsome boy after eating this fruit, 
that fish) and one that later leads some women to link the idea of 
gestation and the digestive system. Together these problems and these 
discoveries absorb a great part of the little girl's interests and feed her 
imagination. I will cite a typical example from Jung, 23 which bears 
remarkable analogies with that of little Hans, analyzed by Freud 
around the same time: 

When Anna was about three years old she began to question her 
parents about where babies come from; Anna had heard that 
children are "little angels." She first seemed to think that when 
people die, they go to heaven and are reincarnated as babies. At 


age four she had a little brother; she hadn't seemed to notice her 
mother's pregnancy but when she saw her the day after the birth, 
she looked at her "with something like a mixture of 
embarrassment and suspicion" and finally asked her, "Aren't 
you going to die now?" She was sent to her grandmother's for 
some time; when she came back, a nurse had arrived and was 
installed near the bed; she at first hated her but then she amused 
herself playing nurse; she was jealous of her brother: she 
sniggered, made up stories, disobeyed and threatened to go back 
to her grandmother's; she often accused her mother of not telling 
the truth, because she suspected her of lying about the infant's 
birth; feeling obscurely that there was a difference between 
"having" a child as a nurse and having one as a mother, she 
asked her mother: "Shall I be a different woman from you?" She 
got into the habit of yelling for her parents during the night; and 
as the earthquake of Messina was much talked about she made it 
the pretext of her anxieties; she constantly asked questions about 
it. One day, she asked outright: "Why is Sophie younger than I? 
Where was Freddie before? Was he in heaven and what was he 
doing there?" Her mother decided she ought to explain that the 
little brother grew inside her stomach like plants in the earth. 
Anna was enchanted with this idea. Then she asked: "But did he 
come all by himself?" "Yes." "But he can't walk yet!" "He 
crawled out." "Did he come out here (pointing to her chest), or 
did he come out of your mouth?" Without waiting for an answer, 
she said she knew it was the stork that had brought it; but in the 
evening she suddenly said: "My brother is in Italy; 24 he has a 
house made of cloth and glass and it doesn't fall down"; and she 
was no longer interested in the earthquake and asked to see 
photos of the eruption. She spoke again of the stork to her dolls 
but without much conviction. Soon however, she had new 
curiosities. Seeing her father in bed: "Why are you in bed? Have 
you got a plant in your inside too?" She had a dream; she 
dreamed of Noah's Ark: "And underneath, there was a lid which 
opened and all the little animals fell out"; in fact, her Noah's Ark 
opened by the roof: At this time, she again had nightmares: one 
could guess that she was wondering about the father's role. A 
pregnant woman having visited her mother, the next day her 


mother saw Anna put a doll under her skirts and take it out 
slowly, saying: "Look, the baby is coming out, now it is all out." 
Some time later, eating an orange, she said: "I'll swallow it all 
down into my stomach, and then I shall get a baby." One 
morning, her father was in the bathroom, she jumped on his bed, 
lay flat on her face, and flailed with her legs, crying out, "Look, 
is that what Papa does?" For five months she seemed to forget 
her preoccupations and then she began to mistrust her father: she 
thought he wanted to drown her, etc. One day she was happily 
sowing seeds in the earth with the gardener, and she asked her 
father: "How did the eyes grow into the head? And the hair?" 
The father explained that they were already there from the 
beginning and grew with the head. Then, she asked: "But how 
did Fritz get into Mama? Who stuck him in? And who stuck you 
into your mama? Where did he come out?" Her father said, 
smiling, "What do you think?" So she pointed to his sexual 
organs: "Did he come out from there?" "Well, yes." "But how 
did he get into Mama? Did someone sow the seed?" So the 
father explained that it is the father who gives the seed. She 
seemed totally satisfied and the next day she teased her mother: 
"Papa told me that Fritz was a little angel and was brought down 
from heaven by the stork." She was much calmer than before; 
she had, though, a dream in which she saw gardeners urinating, 
her father among them; she also dreamed, after seeing the 
gardener plane a drawer, that he was planing her genitals; she 
was obviously preoccupied with knowing the father's exact role. 
It seems that, almost completely enlightened at the age of five, 
she did not experience any other disturbance.* 

This story is characteristic, although very often the little girl is less 
precisely inquisitive about the role played by the father, or the parents 
are much more evasive on this point. Many little girls hide cushions 
under their pinafores to play at being pregnant, or else they walk 
around with their doll in the folds of their skirts and let it fall into the 
cradle, or they give it their breast. Boys, like girls, admire the mystery 
of motherhood; all children have an "in depth" imagination that makes 
them sense secret riches inside things; they are all sensitive to the 
miracle of "nesting," dolls that contain other, smaller dolls, boxes 


containing other boxes, vignettes identically reproduced in reduced 
form; they are all enchanted when a bud is unfolded before their eyes, 
when they are shown a chick in its shell or the surprise of "Japanese 
flowers" in a bowl of water. One little boy, upon opening an Easter 
egg full of little sugar eggs, exclaimed with delight: "Oh! A mummy!" 
Having a child emerge from a woman's stomach is beautiful, like a 
magic trick. The mother seems endowed with wonderful fairy 
powers. Many boys bemoan that such a privilege is denied them; if, 
later, they take eggs from nests, stamp on young plants, if they 
destroy life around them with a kind of rage, it is out of revenge at not 
being able to hatch life, while the little girl is enchanted with the 
thought of creating it one day. 

In addition to this hope made concrete by playing with dolls, a 
housewife's life also provides the little girl with possibilities of 
affirming herself. A great part of housework can be accomplished by 
a very young child; a boy is usually exempted from it; but his sister is 
allowed, even asked, to sweep, dust, peel vegetables, wash a 
newborn, watch the stew. In particular, the older sister often 
participates in maternal chores; either for convenience or because of 
hostility and sadism, the mother unloads many of her functions onto 
her; she is then prematurely integrated into the universe of the serious; 
feeling her importance will help her assume her femininity; but she is 
deprived of the happy gratuitousness, the carefree childhood; a 
woman before her time, she understands too soon what limits this 
specificity imposes on a human being; she enters adolescence as an 
adult, which gives her story a unique character. The overburdened 
child can prematurely be a slave, condemned to a joyless existence. 
But, if no more than an effort equal to her is demanded, she 
experiences the pride of feeling efficient like a grown person and is 
delighted to feel solidarity with adults. This solidarity is possible for 
the child because there is not much distance between the child and the 
housewife. A man specialized in his profession is separated from the 
infant stage by years of training; paternal activities are profoundly 
mysterious for the little boy; the man he will be later is barely 
sketched in him. On the contrary, the mother's activities are accessible 
to the little girl. "She's already a little woman," say her parents, and 
often she is considered more precocious than the boy: in fact, if she is 
closer to the adult stage, it is because this stage traditionally remains 


more infantile for the majority of women. The fact is that she feels 
precocious, she is flattered to play the role of "little mother" to the 
younger ones; she easily becomes important, she speaks reason, she 
gives orders, she takes on superior airs with her brothers, who are 
still closed in the baby circle, she talks to her mother on an equal 

In spite of these compensations, she does not accept her assigned 
destiny without regret; growing up, she envies boys their virility. 
Sometimes parents and grandparents poorly hide the fact that they 
would have preferred a male offspring to a female; or else they show 
more affection to the brother than to the sister: research shows that the 
majority of parents wish to have sons rather than daughters. Boys are 
spoken to with more seriousness and more esteem, and more rights 
are granted them; they themselves treat girls with contempt, they play 
among themselves and exclude girls from their group, they insult 
them: they call them names like "piss pots," thus evoking girls' secret 
childhood humiliations. In France, in coeducational schools, the boys' 
caste deliberately oppresses and persecutes the girls'. But girls are 
reprimanded if they want to compete or fight with them. They doubly 
envy singularly boyish activities: they have a spontaneous desire to 
affirm their power over the world, and they protest against the inferior 
situation they are condemned to. They suffer in being forbidden to 
climb trees, ladders, and roofs, among other activities. Adler observes 
that the notions of high and low have great importance, the idea of 
spatial elevation implying a spiritual superiority, as can be seen in 
numerous heroic myths; to attain a peak or a summit is to emerge 
beyond the given world as sovereign subject; between boys, it is 
frequently a pretext for challenge. The little girl, to whom exploits are 
forbidden and who sits under a tree or by a cliff and sees the 
triumphant boys above her, feels herself, body and soul, inferior. And 
the same is true if she is left behind in a race or a jumping 
competition, or if she is thrown to the ground in a fight or simply 
pushed to the side. 

The more the child matures, the more his universe expands and 
masculine superiority asserts itself. Very often, identification with the 
mother no longer seems a satisfactory solution. If the little girl at first 
accepts her feminine vocation, it is not that she means to abdicate: on 
the contrary, it is to rule; she wants to be a matron because matrons' 


society seems privileged to her; but when her acquaintances, studies, 
amusements, and reading material tear her away from the maternal 
circle, she realizes that it is not women but men who are the masters 
of the world. It is this revelation — far more than the discovery of the 
penis — that imperiously modifies her consciousness of herself 

She first discovers the hierarchy of the sexes in the family 
experience; little by little she understands that the father's authority is 
not the one felt most in daily life, but it is the sovereign one; it has all 
the more impact for not being wasted on trifling matters; even though 
the mother reigns over the household, she is clever enough to put the 
father's will first; at important moments, she makes demands, 
rewards, and punishes in his name. The father's life is surrounded by 
mysterious prestige: the hours he spends in the home, the room where 
he works, the objects around him, his occupations, his habits, have a 
sacred character. It is he who feeds the family, is the one in charge 
and the head. Usually he works outside the home, and it is through 
him that the household communicates with the rest of the world: he is 
the embodiment of this adventurous, immense, difficult, and 
marvelous world; he is transcendence, he is God. 25 This is what the 
child feels physically in the power of his arms that lift her, in the 
strength of his body that she huddles against. The mother loses her 
place of honor to him just as Isis once did to Ra and the earth to the 
sun. But for the child, her situation is deeply altered: she was intended 
one day to become a woman like her all-powerful mother; she will 
never be the sovereign father; the bond that attached her to her mother 
was an active emulation; from her father she can only passively expect 
esteem. The boy grasps paternal superiority through a feeling of 
rivalry, whereas the girl endures it with impotent admiration. I have 
already stated that what Freud called the "Electra complex" is not, as 
he maintains, a sexual desire; it is a deep abdication of the subject who 
consents to be object in submission and adoration. If the father shows 
tenderness for his daughter, she feels her existence magnificently 
justified; she is endowed with all the merits that others have to acquire 
the hard way; she is fulfilled and deified. It may be that she 
nostalgically searches for this plenitude and peace her whole life. If 
she is refused love, she can feel guilty and condemned forever; or else 
she can seek self-esteem elsewhere and become indifferent — even 
hostile — to her father. Besides, the father is not the only one to hold 


the keys to the world: all men normally share virile prestige; there is 
no reason to consider them father "substitutes." It is implicitly as men 
that grandfathers, older brothers, uncles, girlfriends' fathers, friends 
of the family, professors, priests, or doctors fascinate a little girl. The 
emotional consideration that adult women show the Man would be 
enough to perch him on a pedestal. 26 

Everything helps to confirm this hierarchy in the little girl's eyes. 
Her historical and literary culture, the songs and legends she is raised 
on, are an exaltation of the man. Men made Greece, the Roman 
Empire, France, and all countries, they discovered the earth and 
invented the tools to develop it, they governed it, peopled it with 
statues, paintings, and books. Children's literature, mythology, tales, 
and stories reflect the myths created by men's pride and desires: the 
little girl discovers the world and reads her destiny through the eyes 
of men. Male superiority is overwhelming: Perseus, Hercules, David, 
Achilles, Lancelot, Duguesclin, Bayard, Napoleon — so many men for 
one Joan of Arc; and behind her stands the great male figure of Saint 
Michael the archangel! Nothing is more boring than books retracing 
the lives of famous women: they are very pale figures next to those of 
the great men; and most are immersed in the shadows of some male 
hero. Eve was not created for herself but as Adam's companion and 
drawn from his side; in the Bible few women are noteworthy for their 
actions: Ruth merely found herself a husband. Esther gained the 
Jews' grace by kneeling before Ahasuerus, and even then she was 
only a docile instrument in Mordecai's hands; Judith was bolder, but 
she too obeyed the priests and her exploit has a dubious aftertaste: it 
could not be compared to the pure and shining triumph of young 
David. Mythology's goddesses are frivolous or capricious, and they 
all tremble before Jupiter; while Prometheus magnificently steals the 
fire from the sky, Pandora opens the box of catastrophes. There are a 
few sorceresses, some old women who wield formidable power in 
stories. Among them is "The Garden of Paradise" by Andersen, in 
which the figure of the mother of the winds recalls that of the 
primitive Great Goddess: her four enormous sons fearfully obey her; 
she beats and encloses them in bags when they behave badly. But 
they are not attractive characters. More seductive are the fairies, 
mermaids, and nymphs who escape male domination; but their 
existence is dubious and barely individualized; they are involved in 


the human world without having their own destiny: the day 
Andersen's little mermaid becomes a woman, she experiences the 
yoke of love and suffering that is her lot. In contemporary accounts as 
in ancient legends, the man is the privileged hero. Mme de Segur's 
books are a curious exception: they describe a matriarchal society 
where the husband plays a ridiculous character when he is not absent; 
but usually the image of the father is, as in the real world, surrounded 
by glory. It is under the aegis of the father sanctified by his absence 
that the feminine dramas of Little Women take place. In adventure 
stories it is boys who go around the world, travel as sailors on boats, 
subsist on breadfruit in the jungle. All important events happen 
because of men. Reality confirms these novels and legends. If the little 
girl reads the newspapers, if she listens to adult conversation, she 
notices that today, as in the past, men lead the world. The heads of 
state, generals, explorers, musicians, and painters she admires are 
men; it is men who make her heart beat with enthusiasm. 

That prestige is reflected in the supernatural world. Generally, as a 
result of the role religion plays in women's lives, the little girl, more 
dominated by the mother than the boy, is also more subjected to 
religious influences. And in Western religions, God the Father is a 
man, an old man endowed with a specifically virile attribute, luxuriant 
white beard. 27 For Christians, Christ is even more concretely a man 
of flesh and blood with a long blond beard. Angels have no sex, 
according to theologians; but they have masculine names and are 
shown as handsome young men. God's emissaries on earth — the 
pope, the bishop whose ring is kissed, the priest who says Mass, the 
preacher, the person one kneels before in the secrecy of the 
confessional — these are men. For a pious little girl, relations with the 
eternal Father are analogous to those she maintains with her earthly 
father; as they take place on an imaginary level, she experiences an 
even more total surrender. The Catholic religion, among others, 
exercises on her the most troubling of influences. 28 The Virgin 
welcomes the angel's words on her knees. "I am the handmaiden of 
the Lord," she answers. Mary Magdalene is prostrate at Christ's feet, 
and she washes them with her long womanly hair. Women saints 
declare their love to a radiant Christ on their knees. On his knees, 
surrounded by the odor of incense, the child gives himself up to 
God's and the angels' gaze: a man's gaze. There are many analogies 


between erotic and mystical language as spoken by women; for 
example, Saint Therese writes of the child Jesus: 

Oh my beloved, by your love I accept not to see on earth the 
sweetness of your gaze, not to feel the inexpressible kiss from 
your mouth, but I beg of you to embrace me with your love . . . 

My beloved, of your first smile 
Let me soon glimpse the sweetness. 
Ah! Leave me in my burning delirious ness, 
Yes, let me hide myself in your heart! 

I want to be mesmerized by your divine gaze; I want to become 
prey to your love. One day, I have hope, you will melt on me 
carrying me to love's hearth; you will put me into this burning 
chasm to make me become, once and for all, the lucky victim. 

But it must not be concluded from this that these effusions are 
always sexual; rather, when female sexuality develops, it is penetrated 
with the religious feeling that woman has devoted to man since 
childhood. It is true that the little girl experiences a thrill in the 
confessional and even at the foot of the altar close to what she will 
later feel in her lover's arms: woman's love is one of the forms of 
experience in which a consciousness makes itself an object for a being 
that transcends it; and these are also the passive delights that the 
young pious girl tastes in the shadows of the church. 

Prostrate, her face buried in her hands, she experiences the miracle 
of renunciation: on her knees she climbs to heaven; her abandon in 
God's arms assures her an assumption lined with clouds and angels. 
She models her earthly future on this marvelous experience. The child 
can also discover it in other ways: everything encourages her to 
abandon herself in dreams to the arms of men to be transported to a 
sky of glory. She learns that to be happy, she has to be loved; to be 
loved, she has to await love. Woman is Sleeping Beauty, Donkey 
Skin, Cinderella, Snow White, the one who receives and endures. In 
songs and tales, the young man sets off to seek the woman; he fights 
against dragons, he combats giants; she is locked up in a tower, a 
palace, a garden, a cave, chained to a rock, captive, put to sleep: she is 


waiting. One day my prince will come ... Someday he'll come along, 
the man I love ... the popular refrains breathe dreams of patience and 
hope in her. The supreme necessity for woman is to charm a 
masculine heart; this is the recompense all heroines aspire to, even if 
they are intrepid, adventuresome; and only their beauty is asked of 
them in most cases. It is thus understandable that attention to her 
physical appearance can become a real obsession for the little girl; 
princesses or shepherds, one must always be pretty to conquer love 
and happiness; ugliness is cruelly associated with meanness, and 
when one sees the misfortunes that befall ugly girls, one does not 
know if it is their crimes or their disgrace that destiny punishes. 
Young beauties promised a glorious future often start out in the role 
of victim; the story of Genevieve de Brabant or of Griselda are not as 
innocent as it would seem; love and suffering are intertwined in a 
troubling way; woman is assured of the most delicious triumphs 
when falling to the bottom of abjection; whether it be a question of 
God or a man, the little girl learns that by consenting to the most 
serious renunciations, she will become all-powerful: she takes 
pleasure in a masochism that promises her supreme conquests. Saint 
Blandine, white and bloody in the paws of lions, Snow White lying as 
if dead in a glass coffin, Sleeping Beauty, Atala fainting, a whole 
cohort of tender heroines beaten, passive, wounded, on their knees, 
humiliated, teach their younger sisters the fascinating prestige of 
martyred, abandoned, and resigned beauty. It is not surprising that 
while her brother plays at the hero, the little girl plays so easily at the 
martyr: the pagans throw her to the lions, Bluebeard drags her by her 
hair, the king, her husband, exiles her to the depth of the forests; she 
resigns herself, she suffers, she dies, and her brow is haloed with 
glory. "While still a little girl, I wanted to draw men's attention, 
trouble them, be saved by them, die in their arms," Mme de Noailles 
writes. A remarkable example of these masochistic musings is found 
in La voile noire (The Black Sail) by Maria Le Hardouin. 

At seven, from I don't know which rib, I made my first man. He 
was tall, thin, very young, dressed in a suit of black satin with 
long sleeves touching the ground. His beautiful blond hair 
cascaded in heavy curls onto his shoulders ... I called him 
Edmond ... Then a day came when I gave him two 


brothers ... These three brothers: Edmond, Charles, and Cedric, 
all three dressed in black satin, all three blond and slim, procured 
for me strange blessings. Their feet shod in silk were so 
beautiful and their hands so fragile that I felt all sorts of 
movements in my soul ... I became their sister Marguerite ... I 
loved to represent myself as subjected to the whims of my 
brothers and totally at their mercy. I dreamed that my oldest 
brother, Edmond, had the right of life and death over me. I never 
had permission to raise my eyes to his face. He had me whipped 
under the slightest pretext. When he addressed himself to me, I 
was so overwhelmed by fear and respect that I found nothing 
else to answer him and mumbled constantly "Yes, my lordship," 
"No, my lordship," and I savored the strange delight of feeling 
like an idiot . . . When the suffering he imposed on me was too 
great, I murmured "Thank you, my lordship," and there came a 
moment when, almost faltering from suffering, I placed, so as 
not to shout, my lips on his hand, while, some movement finally 
breaking my heart, I reached one of these states in which one 
desires to die from too much happiness. 

At an early age, the little girl already dreams she has reached the 
age of love; at nine or ten, she loves to make herself up, she pads her 
blouse, she disguises herself as a lady. She does not, however, look 
for any erotic experience with little boys: if she does go with them 
into the corner to play "doctor," it is only out of sexual curiosity. But 
the partner of her amorous dreaming is an adult, either purely 
imaginary or based on real individuals: in the latter case, the child is 
satisfied to love him from afar. In Colette Audry's memoirs there is a 
very good example of a child's dreaming; 29 she recounts that she 
discovered love at five years of age: 

This naturally had nothing to do with the little sexual pleasures 
of childhood, the satisfaction I felt, for example, straddling a 
certain chair in the dining room or caressing myself before 
falling asleep ... The only common characteristic between the 
feeling and the pleasure is that I carefully hid them both from 
those around me ... My love for this young man consisted in 
thinking of him before falling asleep and imagining marvelous 


stories ... In Privas, I was in love with all the department heads 
of my father's office ... I was never very deeply hurt by their 
departure, because they were barely more than a pretext for my 
amorous musings ... In the evening in bed I got my revenge for 
too much youth and shyness. I prepared everything very 
carefully, I did not have any trouble making him present to me, 
but it was a question of transforming myself, me, so that I could 
see myself from the interior because I became her, and stopped 
being I. First, I was pretty and eighteen years old. A tin of 
sweets helped me a lot: a long tin of rectangular and flat sweets 
that depicted two girls surrounded by doves. I was the dark, 
curly-headed one, dressed in a long muslin dress. A ten-year 
absence had separated us. He returned scarcely aged, and the 
sight of this marvelous creature overwhelmed him. She seemed 
to barely remember him, she was unaffected, indifferent, and 
witty. I composed truly brilliant conversations for this first 
meeting. They were followed by misunderstandings, a whole 
difficult conquest, cruel hours of discouragement and jealousy 
for him. Finally, pushed to the limit, he admitted his love. She 
listened to him in silence, and just at the moment he thought all 
was lost, she told him she had never stopped loving him, and 
they embraced a little. The scene normally took place on a park 
bench, in the evening. I saw the two forms close together, I 
heard the murmur of voices, I felt at the same time the warm 
body contact. But then everything came loose . . . never did I 
broach marriage 30 ... The next day I thought of it a little while 
washing. I don't know why the soapy face I was looking at in 
the mirror delighted me (the rest of the time I didn't find myself 
beautiful) and filled me with hope. I would have considered for 
hours this misty, tilted face that seemed to be waiting for me 
from afar on the road to the future. But I had to hurry; once I 
dried my face, everything was over, and I got back my banal 
child's face, which no longer interested me. 

Games and dreams orient the girl toward passivity; but she is a 
human being before becoming a woman; and she already knows that 
accepting herself as woman means resigning and mutilating herself; 
while renunciation might be tempting, mutilation is abhorrent. Man 


and Love are still far away in the mist of the future; in the present, the 
little girl seeks activity, autonomy, like her brothers. The burden of 
freedom is not heavy for children, because it does not involve 
responsibility; they know they are safe in the shelter of adults: they 
are not tempted to flee from themselves. The girl's spontaneous zest 
for life, her taste for games, laughter, and adventure, make her 
consider the maternal circle narrow and stultifying. She wants to 
escape her mother's authority, an authority that is wielded in a more 
routine and intimate manner than the one that boys have to accept. 
Rare are the cases in which she is as understanding and discreet as in 
this Sido that Colette painted with love. Not to mention the almost 
pathological cases — there are many 31 — where the mother is a kind of 
executioner, satisfying her domineering and sadistic instincts on the 
child; her daughter is the privileged object opposite whom she 
attempts to affirm herself as sovereign subject; this attempt makes the 
child balk in revolt. Colette Audry described this rebellion of a normal 
girl against a normal mother: 

I wouldn't have known how to answer the truth, however 
innocent it was, because I never felt innocent in front of Mama. 
She was the essential adult, and I resented her for it as long as I 
was not yet cured. There was deep inside me a kind of 
tumultuous and fierce sore that I was sure of always finding 
raw ... I didn't think she was too strict; nor that she hadn't the 
right. I thought: no, no, no with all my strength. I didn't even 
blame her for her authority or for her orders or arbitrary defenses 
but for wanting to subjugate me. She said it sometimes: when 
she didn't say it, her eyes and voice did. Or else she told ladies 
that children are much more docile after a punishment. These 
words stuck in my throat, unforgettable: I couldn't vomit them; I 
couldn't swallow them. This anger was my guilt in front of her 
and also my shame in front of me (because in reality she 
frightened me, and all I had on my side in the form of retaliation 
were a few violent words or acts of insolence) but also my glory, 
nevertheless: as long as the sore was there, and living the silent 
madness that made me only repeat, "Subjugate, docile, 
punishment, humiliation," I wouldn't be subjugated. 


Rebellion is even more violent in the frequent cases when the 
mother has lost her prestige. She appears as the one who waits, 
endures, complains, cries, and makes scenes: and in daily reality this 
thankless role does not lead to any apotheosis; victim, she is scorned; 
shrew, she is detested; her destiny appears to be the prototype of 
bland repetition: with her, life only repeats itself stupidly without 
going anywhere; blocked in her housewifely role, she stops the 
expansion of her existence, she is obstacle and negation. Her daughter 
wants not to take after her. She dedicates a cult to women who have 
escaped feminine servitude: actresses, writers, and professors; she 
gives herself enthusiastically to sports and to studies, she climbs trees, 
tears her clothes, tries to compete with boys. Very often she has a best 
friend in whom she confides; it is an exclusive friendship like a love 
affair that usually includes sharing sexual secrets: the little girls 
exchange information they have succeeded in getting and talk about it. 
Often there is a triangle, one of the girls falling in love with her 
girlfriend's brother: thus Sonya in War and Peace is in love with her 
best friend Natasha's brother. In any case, this friendship is shrouded 
in mystery, and in general at this period the child loves to have 
secrets; she makes a secret of the most insignificant thing: thus does 
she react against the secrecies that thwart her curiosity; it is also a way 
of giving herself importance; she tries by all means to acquire it; she 
tries to be part of adults' lives, she makes up stories about them that 
she only half believes and in which she plays a major role. With her 
friends, she feigns returning boys' scorn with scorn; they form a 
closed group, they sneer and mock them. But in fact, she is flattered 
when they treat her as an equal; she seeks their approbation. She 
would like to belong to the privileged caste. The same movement that 
in primitive hordes subjects woman to male supremacy is manifested 
in each new "arrival" by a refusal of her lot: in her, transcendence 
condemns the absurdity of immanence. She is annoyed at being 
oppressed by rules of decency, bothered by her clothes, enslaved to 
cleaning tasks, held back in all her enthusiasms; on this point there 
have been many studies that have almost all given the same result: 32 
all the boys — like Plato in the past — say they would have hated to be 
girls; almost all the girls are sorry not to be boys. According to 
Havelock Ellis's statistics, one boy out of a hundred wanted to be a 
girl; more than 75 percent of the girls would have preferred to change 


sex. According to a study by Karl Pipal (cited by Baudouin in his 
work L'dme enfantine [The Mind of the Child]), out of twenty boys 
of twelve to fourteen years of age, eighteen said they would rather be 
anything in the whole world than a girl; out of twenty-two girls, ten 
wished to be boys and gave the following reasons: "Boys are better: 
they do not have to suffer like women . . . My mother would love me 
more ... A boy does more interesting work ... A boy has more 
aptitude for school ... I would have fun frightening girls ... I would 
not fear boys anymore ... They are freer ... Boys' games are more 
fun . . . They are not held back by their clothes." This last observation 
is recurrent: almost all the girls complain of being bothered by their 
clothes, of not being free in their movements, of having to watch their 
skirts or light-colored outfits that get dirty so easily. At about ten or 
twelve years of age, most little girls are really tomboys, that is, 
children who lack the license to be boys. Not only do they suffer from 
it as a privation and an injustice, but the regime they are condemned to 
is unhealthy. The exuberance of life is prohibited to them, their 
stunted vigor turns into nervousness; their goody-goody occupations 
do not exhaust their brimming energy; they are bored: out of boredom 
and to compensate for the inferiority from which they suffer, they 
indulge in morose and romantic daydreams; they begin to have a taste 
for these facile escapes and lose the sense of reality; they succumb to 
their emotions with a confused exaltation; since they cannot act, they 
talk, readily mixing up serious words with totally meaningless ones; 
abandoned, "misunderstood," they go looking for consolation in 
narcissistic sentiments: they look on themselves as heroines in novels, 
admire themselves, and complain; it is natural for them to become 
keen on their appearance and to playact: these defects will grow 
during puberty. Their malaise expresses itself in impatience, tantrums, 
tears; they indulge in tears — an indulgence many women keep later — 
largely because they love to play the victim: it is both a protest against 
the harshness of their destiny and a way of endearing themselves to 
others. "Little girls love to cry so much that I have known them to cry 
in front of a mirror in order to double the pleasure," says Monsignor 
Dupanloup. Most of their dramas concern relations with their family; 
they try to break their bonds with their mothers: either they are hostile 
to them, or they continue to feel a profound need for protection; they 
would like to monopolize their fathers' love for themselves; they are 


jealous, touchy, demanding. They often make up stories; they imagine 
they are adopted, that their parents are not really theirs; they attribute a 
secret life to them; they dream about their sexual relations; they love to 
imagine that their father is misunderstood, unhappy, that he is not 
finding in his wife the ideal companion that his daughter would be for 
him; or, on the contrary, that the mother rightly finds him rough and 
brutal, that she is appalled by any physical relations with him. 
Fantasies, acting out, childish tragedies, false enthusiasms, strange 
things: the reason must be sought not in a mysterious feminine soul 
but in the child's situation. 

It is a strange experience for an individual recognizing himself as 
subject, autonomy, and transcendence, as an absolute, to discover 
inferiority — as a given essence — in his self: it is a strange experience 
for one who posits himself for himself as One to be revealed to 
himself as alterity. That is what happens to the little girl when, 
learning about the world, she grasps herself as a woman in it. The 
sphere she belongs to is closed everywhere, limited, dominated by the 
male universe: as high as she climbs, as far as she dares go, there will 
always be a ceiling over her head, walls that block her path. Man's 
gods are in such a faraway heaven that in truth, for him, there are no 
gods: the little girl lives among gods with a human face. 

This is not a unique situation. American blacks, partially integrated 
into a civilization that nevertheless considers them an inferior caste, 
live it; what Bigger Thomas experiences with so much bitterness at 
the dawn of his life is this definitive inferiority, this cursed alterity 
inscribed in the color of his skin: he watches planes pass and knows 
that because he is black the sky is out of bounds for him. 33 Because 
she is woman, the girl knows that the sea and the poles, a thousand 
adventures, a thousand joys, are forbidden to her: she is born on the 
wrong side. The great difference is that the blacks endure their lot in 
revolt — no privilege compensates for its severity — while for the 
woman her complicity is invited. Earlier I recalled that in addition to 
the authentic claim of the subject who claims sovereign freedom, there 
is an inauthentic desire for renunciation and escape in the existent; 34 
these are the delights of passivity that parents and educators, books 
and myths, women and men dangle before the little girl's eyes; in 
early childhood she is already taught to taste them; temptation 
becomes more and more insidious; and she yields to it even more 


fatally as the thrust of her transcendence comes up against harsher and 
harsher resistance. But in accepting her passivity, she also accepts 
without resistance enduring a destiny that is going to be imposed on 
her from the exterior, and this fatality frightens her. Whether 
ambitious, scatterbrained, or shy, the young boy leaps toward an open 
future; he will be a sailor or an engineer, he will stay in the fields or 
will leave for the city, he will see the world, he will become rich; he 
feels free faced with a future where unexpected opportunities await 
him. The girl will be wife, mother, grandmother; she will take care of 
her house exactly as her mother does, she will take care of her 
children as she was taken care of: she is twelve years old, and her 
story is already written in the heavens; she will discover it day after 
day without shaping it; she is curious but frightened when she thinks 
about this life whose every step is planned in advance and toward 
which each day irrevocably moves her. 

This is why the little girl, even more so than her brothers, is 
preoccupied with sexual mysteries; of course boys are interested as 
well, just as passionately; but in their future, their role of husband and 
father is not what concerns them the most; marriage and motherhood 
put in question the little girl's whole destiny; and as soon as she 
begins to perceive their secrets, her body seems odiously threatened to 
her. The magic of motherhood has faded: whether she has been 
informed early or not, she knows, in a more or less coherent manner, 
that a baby does not appear by chance in the mother's belly and does 
not come out at the wave of a magic wand; she questions herself 
anxiously. Often it seems not extraordinary at all but rather horrible 
that a parasitic body should proliferate inside her body; the idea of this 
monstrous swelling frightens her. And how will the baby get out? 
Even if she was never told about the cries and suffering of childbirth, 
she has overheard things, she has read the words in the Bible: "In 
sorrow thou shalt bring forth children"; she has the presentiment of 
tortures she cannot even imagine; she invents strange operations 
around her navel; she is no less reassured if she supposes that the 
fetus will be expelled by her anus: little girls have been seen to have 
nervous constipation attacks when they thought they had discovered 
the birthing process. Accurate explanations will not bring much relief: 
images of swelling, tearing, and hemorrhaging will haunt her. The 
more imaginative she is, the more sensitive the little girl will be to 


these visions; but no girl could look at them without shuddering. 
Colette relates how her mother found her in a faint after reading 
Zola's description of a birth: 

[The author depicted the birth] with a rough-and-ready, crude 
wealth of detail, an anatomical precision, and a lingering over 
colours, postures and cries, in which I recognized none of the 
tranquil, knowing experience on which I as a country girl could 
draw. I felt credulous, startled and vulnerable in my nascent 
femininity ... Other words, right in front of my eyes, depicted 
flesh splitting open, excrement and sullied blood ... The lawn 
rose to welcome me . . . like one of those little hares that poachers 
sometimes brought, freshly killed, into the kitchen.* 

The reassurance offered by grown-ups leaves the child worried; 
growing up, she learns not to trust the word of adults; often it is on 
the very mysteries of her conception that she has caught them in lies; 
and she also knows that they consider the most frightening things 
normal; if she has ever experienced a violent physical shock — tonsils 
removed, tooth pulled, whitlow lanced — she will project the 
remembered anxiety onto childbirth. 

The physical nature of pregnancy and childbirth suggests as well 
that "something physical" takes place between the spouses. The often- 
encountered word "blood" in expressions like "same-blood children," 
"pure blood," and "mixed blood" sometimes orients the childish 
imagination; it is supposed that marriage is accompanied by some 
solemn transfusion. But more often the "physical thing" seems to be 
linked to the urinary and excremental systems; in particular, children 
think that the man urinates into the woman. This sexual operation is 
thought of as dirty. This is what overwhelms the child for whom 
"dirty" things have been rife with the strictest taboos: How, then, can 
it be that they are integrated into adults' lives? The child is first of all 
protected from scandal by the very absurdity he discovers: he finds 
there is no sense to what he hears around him, what he reads, what he 
writes; everything seems unreal to him. In Carson McCullers's 
charming book The Member of the Wedding, the young heroine 
surprises two neighbors in bed nude; the very anomaly of the story 
keeps her from giving it too much importance: 


It was a summer Sunday and the hall door of the Marlowes' 
room was open. She could see only a portion of the room, part 
of the dresser and only the footpiece of the bed with Mrs. 
Marlowe's corset on it. But there was a sound in the quiet room 
she could not place, and when she stepped over the threshold she 
was startled by a sight that, after a single glance, sent her running 
to the kitchen, crying: Mr. Marlowe is having a fit! Berenice had 
hurried through the hall, but when she looked into the front 
room, she merely bunched her lips and banged the 
door . . . Frankie had tried to question Berenice and find out what 
was the matter. But Berenice had only said that they were 
common people and added that with a certain party in the house 
they ought at least to know enough to shut a door. Though 
Frankie knew she was the certain party, still she did not 
understand. What kind of a fit was it? she asked. But Berenice 
would only answer: Baby, just a common fit. And Frankie knew 
from the voice's tones that there was more to it than she was 
told. Later she only remembered the Marlowes as common 

When children are warned against strangers, when a sexual incident 
is described to them, it is often explained in terms of sickness, 
maniacs, or madmen; it is a convenient explanation; the little girl 
fondled by her neighbor at the cinema or the girl who sees a man 
expose himself thinks that she is dealing with a crazy man; of course, 
encountering madness is unpleasant: an epileptic attack, hysteria, or a 
violent quarrel upsets the adult world order, and the child who 
witnesses it feels in danger; but after all, just as there are homeless, 
beggars, and injured people with hideous sores in harmonious 
society, there can also be some abnormal ones without its base 
disintegrating. It is when parents, friends, and teachers are suspected 
of celebrating black masses that the child really becomes afraid. 

When I was first told about sexual relations between man and 
woman, I declared that such things were impossible since my 
parents would have had to do likewise, and I thought too highly 
of them to believe it. I said that it was much too disgusting for 
me ever to do it. Unfortunately, I was to be disabused shortly 


after when I heard what my parents were doing ... that was a 
fearful moment; I hid my face under the bedcovers, stopped my 
ears, and wished I were a thousand miles from there. 35 

How to go from the image of dressed and dignified people, these 
people who teach decency, reserve, and reason, to that of naked beasts 
confronting each other? Here is a contradiction that shakes their 
pedestal, darkens the sky. Often the child stubbornly refuses the 
odious revelation. "My parents don't do that," he declares. Or he tries 
to give coitus a decent image. "When you want a child," said a little 
girl, "you go to the doctor; you undress, you cover your eyes, because 
you mustn't watch; the doctor ties the parents together and helps them 
so that it works right"; she had changed the act of love into a surgical 
operation, rather unpleasant at that, but as honorable as going to the 
dentist. But despite denial and escape, embarrassment and doubt creep 
into the child's heart; a phenomenon as painful as weaning occurs: it 
is no longer separating the child from the maternal flesh, but the 
protective universe that surrounds him falls apart; he finds himself 
without a roof over his head, abandoned, absolutely alone before a 
future as dark as night. What adds to the little girl's anxiety is that she 
cannot discern the exact shape of the equivocal curse that weighs on 
her. The information she gets is inconsistent, books are contradictory; 
even technical explanations do not dissipate the heavy shadow; a 
hundred questions arise: Is the sexual act painful? Or delicious? How 
long does it last? Five minutes or all night? Sometimes you read that a 
woman became a mother with one embrace, and sometimes you 
remain sterile after hours of sexual activity. Do people "do that" every 
day? Or rarely? The child tries to learn more by reading the Bible, 
consulting dictionaries, asking friends, and he gropes in darkness and 
disgust. An interesting document on this point is the study made by 
Dr. Liepmann; here are a few responses given to him by young girls 
about their sexual initiation: 

I continued to stray among my nebulous and twisted ideas. No 
one broached the subject, neither my mother nor my 
schoolteacher; no book treated the subject fully. Little by little a 
sort of perilous and ugly mystery was woven around the act, 
which at first had seemed so natural to me. The older girls of 


twelve used crude jokes to bridge the gap between themselves 
and our classmates. All that was still so vague and disgusting; 
we argued about where the baby was formed, if perhaps the 
thing only took place once for the man since marriage was the 
occasion for so much fuss. My period at fifteen was another new 
surprise. It was my turn to be caught up, in a way, in the round. 

... Sexual initiation! An expression never to be mentioned in 
our parents' house!... I searched in books, but I agonized and 
wore myself out looking for the road to follow ... I went to a 
boys' school: for my schoolteacher the question did not even 
seem to exist . . . Horlam's work, Little Boy and Little Girl, 
finally brought me the truth. My tense state and unbearable 
overexcitement disappeared, although I was very unhappy and 
took a long time to recognize and understand that eroticism and 
sexuality alone constitute real love. 

Stages of my initiation: (1) First questions and a few vague 
notions (totally unsatisfactory). From three and a half to eleven 
years old . . . No answers to the questions I had in the following 
years. When I was seven, right there feeding my rabbit, I 
suddenly saw little naked ones underneath her ... My mother 
told me that in animals and people little ones grow in their 
mother's belly and come out through the loins. This birth 
through the loins seemed unreasonable to me ... a nursemaid 
told me about pregnancy, birth, and menstruation . . . Finally, my 
father replied to my last question about his true function with 
obscure stories about pollen and pistil. (2) Some attempts at 
personal experimentation (eleven to thirteen years old). I dug out 
an encyclopedia and a medical book ... It was only theoretical 
information in strange gigantic words. (3) Testing of acquired 
knowledge (thirteen to twenty): (a) in daily life, (b) in scientific 

At eight, I often played with a boy my age. One day we 
broached the subject. I already knew, because my mother had 
already told me, that a woman has many eggs inside her . . . and 
that a child was born from one of these eggs whenever the 


mother strongly desired it ... Giving this same answer to my 
friend, I received this reply: "You are completely stupid! When 
our butcher and his wife want a baby, they go to bed and do 
dirty things." I was indignant ... We had then (around twelve 
and a half) a maid who told me all sorts of scandalous tales. I 
never said a word to Mama, as I was ashamed; but I asked her if 
sitting on a man's knees could give you a baby. She explained 
everything as best she could. 

At school I learned where babies emerged, and I had the feeling 
that it was something horrible. But how did they come into the 
world? We both formed a rather monstrous idea about the thing, 
especially since one winter morning on the way to school 
together in the darkness we met a certain man who showed us 
his sexual parts and asked us, "Don't they seem good enough to 
eat?" Our disgust was inconceivable, and we were literally 
nauseated. Until I was twenty-one, I thought babies were born 
through the navel. 

A little girl took me aside and asked me: "Do you know where 
babies come from?" Finally she decided to speak out: 
"Goodness! How foolish you are! Kids come out of women's 
stomachs, and for them to be born, women have to do 
completely disgusting things with men!" Then she went into 
details about how disgusting. But I had become totally 
transformed, absolutely unable to believe that such things could 
be possible. We slept in the same room as our parents . . . One 
night later I heard take place what I had thought was impossible, 
and, yes, I was ashamed, I was ashamed of my parents. All of 
this made of me another being. I went through horrible moral 
suffering. I considered myself a deeply depraved creature 
because I was now aware of these things. 

It should be said that even coherent instruction would not resolve 
the problem; in spite of the best will of parents and teachers, the 
sexual experience could not be put into words and concepts; it could 
only be understood by living it; all analysis, however serious, will 
have a comic side and will fail to deliver the truth. When, from the 


poetic loves of flowers to the nuptials of fish, by way of the chick, the 
cat, or the kid, one reaches the human species, the mystery of 
conception can be theoretically elucidated: that of voluptuousness and 
sexual love remains total. How would one explain the pleasure of a 
caress or a kiss to a dispassionate child? Kisses are given and 
received in a family way, sometimes even on the lips: Why do these 
mucus exchanges in certain encounters provoke dizziness? It is like 
describing colors to the blind. As long as there is no intuition of the 
excitement and desire that give the sexual function its meaning and 
unity, the different elements seem shocking and monstrous. In 
particular, the little girl is revolted when she understands that she is 
virgin and sealed, and that to change into a woman a man's sex must 
penetrate her. Since exhibitionism is a widespread perversion, many 
little girls have seen the penis in an erection; in any case, they have 
observed the sexual organs of animals, and it is unfortunate that the 
horse's so often draws their attention; one imagines that they would 
be frightened by it. Fear of childbirth, fear of the male sex organ, fear 
of the "crises" that threaten married couples, disgust for dirty 
practices, derision for actions devoid of signification, all of this often 
leads a young girl to declare: "I will never marry." 36 Therein lies the 
surest defense against pain, folly, and obscenity. It is useless to try to 
explain that when the day comes, neither deflowering nor childbirth 
would seem so terrible, that millions of women resign themselves to it 
and are none the worse for it. When a child fears an outside 
occurrence, he is relieved of the fear, but not by predicting that, later, 
he will accept it naturally: it is himself he fears meeting in the far-off 
future, alienated and lost. The metamorphosis of the caterpillar, 
through chrysalis and into butterfly, brings about a deep uneasiness: 
Is it still the same caterpillar after this long sleep? Does she recognize 
herself beneath these brilliant wings? I knew little girls who were 
plunged into an alarming reverie at the sight of a chrysalis. 

And yet the metamorphosis takes place. The little girl herself does 
not understand the meaning, but she realizes that in her relations with 
the world and her own body something is changing subtly: she is 
sensitive to contacts, tastes, and odors that previously left her 
indifferent; baroque images pass through her head; she barely 
recognizes herself in mirrors; she feels "funny," and things seem 
"funny"; such is the case of little Emily, described by Richard Hughes 


in A High Wind in Jamaica: 

Emily, for coolness, sat up to her chin in water, and hundreds of 
infant fish were tickling with their inquisitive mouths every inch 
of her body, a sort of expressionless light kissing. Anyhow she 
had lately come to hate being touched — but this was abominable. 
At last, when she could stand it no longer, she clambered out and 

Even Margaret Kennedy's serene Tessa feels this strange disturbance: 

Suddenly she had become intensely miserable. She stared down 
into the darkness of the hall, cut in two by the moonlight which 
streamed in through the open door. She could not bear it. She 
jumped up with a little cry of exasperation. "Oh!" she exclaimed. 
"How I hate it all!" ... She ran out to hide herself in the 
mountains, frightened and furious, pursued by a desolate 
foreboding which seemed to fill the quiet house. As she 
stumbled up towards the pass she kept murmuring to herself: "I 
wish I could die! I wish I was dead!" 

She knew that she did not mean this; she was not in the least 
anxious to die. But the violence of such a statement seemed to 
satisfy her.* 

This disturbing moment is described at length in Carson 
McCullers's previously mentioned book, The Member of the 

This was the summer when Frankie was sick and tired of being 
Frankie. She hated herself, and had become a loafer and a big 
no-good who hung around the summer kitchen: dirty and greedy 
and mean and sad. Besides being too mean to live, she was a 
criminal . . . Then the spring of that year had been a long queer 
season. Things began to change . . . There was something about 
the green trees and the flowers of April that made Frankie sad. 
She did not know why she was sad, but because of this peculiar 
sadness, she began to realize that she ought to leave the 
town . . . She ought to leave the town and go to some place far 


away. For the late spring, that year, was lazy and too sweet. The 
long afternoons flowered and lasted and the green sweetness 
sickened her ... Many things made Frankie suddenly wish to 
cry. Very early in the morning she would sometimes go out into 
the yard and stand for a long time looking at the sunrise sky. 
And it was as though a question came into her heart, and the sky 
did not answer. Things she had never noticed much before began 
to hurt her: home lights watched from the evening sidewalks, an 
unknown voice from an alley. She would stare at the lights and 
listen to the voice, and something inside her stiffened and waited. 
But the lights would darken, the voice fall silent, and though she 
waited, that was all. She was afraid of these things that made her 
suddenly wonder who she was, and what she was going to be in 
the world, and why she was standing at that minute, seeing a 
light, or listening, or staring up into the sky: alone. She was 
afraid, and there was a queer tightness in her chest . . . 

She went around town, and the things she saw and heard 
seemed to be left somehow unfinished, and there was the 
tightness in her that would not break. She would hurry to do 
something, but what she did was always wrong ... After the 
long twilights of this season, when Frankie had walked around 
the sidewalks of the town, a jazz sadness quivered her nerves 
and her heart stiffened and almost stopped. 

What is happening in this troubled period is that the child's body is 
becoming a woman's body and being made flesh. Except in the case 
of glandular deficiency where the subject remains fixed in the infantile 
stage, the puberty crisis begins around the age of twelve or thirteen. 37 
This crisis begins much earlier for girls than for boys, and it brings 
about far greater changes. The little girl approaches it with worry and 
displeasure. As her breasts and body hair develop, a feeling is born 
that sometimes changes into pride, but begins as shame; suddenly the 
child displays modesty, she refuses to show herself nude, even to her 
sisters or her mother, she inspects herself with surprise mixed with 
horror, and she observes with anxiety the swelling of this hard core, 
somewhat painful, appearing under nipples that until recently were as 
inoffensive as a navel. She is worried to discover a vulnerable spot in 
herself: undoubtedly this pain is slight compared with a burn or a 


toothache; but in an accident or illness, pain was always abnormal, 
while the youthful breast is normally the center of who knows what 
indefinable resentment. Something is happening, something that is not 
an illness, but that involves the very law of existence and is yet 
struggle and suffering. Of course, from birth to puberty the little girl 
grew up, but she never felt growth; day after day, her body was 
present like an exact finished thing; now she is "developing": the very 
word horrifies her; vital phenomena are only reassuring when they 
have found a balance and taken on the stable aspect of a fresh flower, 
a polished animal; but in the blossoming of her breasts, the little girl 
feels the ambiguity of the word "living." She is neither gold nor 
diamond, but a strange matter, moving and uncertain, inside of which 
impure chemistries develop. She is used to a free-flowing head of hair 
that falls like a silken skein; but this new growth under her arms, 
beneath her belly, metamorphoses her into an animal or alga. Whether 
she is more or less prepared for it, she foresees in these changes a 
finality that rips her from her self; thus hurled into a vital cycle that 
goes beyond the moment of her own existence, she senses a 
dependence that dooms her to man, child, and tomb. In themselves, 
her breasts seem to be a useless and indiscreet proliferation. Arms, 
legs, skin, muscles, and even the round buttocks she sits on, all have 
had until now a clear usefulness; only the sex organ defined as 
urinary was a bit dubious, though secret and invisible to others. Her 
breasts show through her sweater or blouse, and this body that the 
little girl identified with self appears to her as flesh; it is an object that 
others look at and see. "For two years I wore capes to hide my chest, 
I was so ashamed of it," a woman told me. And another: "I still 
remember the strange confusion I felt when a friend of my age, but 
more developed than I was, stooped to pick up a ball, I noticed by the 
opening in her blouse two already heavy breasts: this body so similar 
to mine, on which my body would be modeled, made me blush for 
myself." "At thirteen, I walked around bare legged, in a short dress," 
another woman told me. "A man, sniggering, made a comment about 
my fat calves. The next day, my mother made me wear stockings and 
lengthen my skirt, but I will never forget the shock I suddenly felt in 
seeing myself seen.'''' The little girl feels that her body is escaping her, 
that it is no longer the clear expression of her individuality; it becomes 
foreign to her; and at the same moment, she is grasped by others as a 


thing: on the street, eyes follow her, her body is subject to comments; 
she would like to become invisible; she is afraid of becoming flesh 
and afraid to show her flesh. 

This disgust is expressed in many young girls by the desire to lose 
weight: they do not want to eat anymore; if they are forced, they 
vomit; they watch their weight incessantly. Others become 
pathologically shy; entering a room or going out on the street becomes 
a torture. From these experiences, psychoses sometimes develop. A 
typical example is Nadia, the patient from Ley obsessions et la 
psychasthenic (Obsessions and Psychasthenia), described by Janet: 

Nadia, a young girl from a wealthy and remarkably intelligent 
family, was stylish, artistic, and above all an excellent musician; 
but from infancy she was obstinate and irritable ...: "She 
demanded excessive affection from everyone, her parents, 
sisters, and servants, but she was so demanding and dominating 
that she soon alienated people; horribly susceptible, when her 
cousins used mockery to try to change her character, she 
acquired a sense of shame fixed on her body." Then, too, her 
need for affection made her wish to remain a child, to remain a 
little girl to be petted, one whose every whim is indulged, and in 
short made her fear growing up ... A precocious puberty 
worsened her troubles, mixing fears of modesty with fears of 
growing up: "Since men like plump women, I want to remain 
extremely thin." Pubic hair and growing breasts added to her 
fears. From the age of eleven, as she wore short skirts, it seemed 
to her that everyone eyed her; she was given long skirts and was 
then ashamed of her feet, her hips, and so on. The appearance of 
menstruation drove her half-mad; believing that she was the only 
one in the world having the monstrosity of pubic hair, she 
labored up to the age of twenty "to rid herself of this savage 
decoration by depilation." The development of breasts 
exacerbated these obsessions because she had always had a 
horror of obesity; she did not detest it in others; but for herself 
she considered it a defect. "I don't care about being pretty, but I 
would be too ashamed if I became bloated, that would horrify 
me; if by bad luck I became fat, I wouldn't dare let anyone see 
me." So she tried every means, all kinds of prayers and 


conjurations, to prevent normal growth: she swore to repeat 
prayers five or ten times, to hop five times on one foot. "If I 
touch one piano note four times in the same piece, I accept 
growing and not being loved by anyone." Finally she decided 
not to eat. "I did not want to get fat, nor to grow up, nor 
resemble a woman because I always wanted to remain a little 
girl." She solemnly promised to accept no food at all; when she 
yielded to her mother's pleas to take some food and broke her 
vow, she knelt for hours writing out vows and tearing them up. 
Her mother died when she was eighteen, and she then imposed a 
strict regime on herself: two clear bouillon soups, an egg yolk, a 
spoonful of vinegar, a cup of tea with the juice of a whole lemon, 
was all she would take in a day. Hunger devoured her. 
"Sometimes I spent hours thinking of food, I was so hungry: I 
swallowed my saliva, gnawed on my handkerchief, and rolled on 
the floor from wanting to eat." But she resisted temptations. She 
was pretty, but believed that her face was puffy and covered with 
pimples; if her doctor stated that he did not see them, she said he 
didn't understand anything, that he couldn't see the pimples 
between the skin and the flesh. She left her family in the end and 
hid in a small apartment, seeing only a guardian and the doctor; 
she never went out; she accepted her father's visit, but only with 
difficulty; he brought about a serious relapse by telling her that 
she looked well; she dreaded having a fat face, healthy 
complexion, big muscles. She lived most of the time in darkness, 
so intolerable it was for her to be seen or even visible. 

Very often the parents' attitude contributes to inculcating shame in 
the little girl for her physical appearance. A woman's testimony: 

I suffered from a very keen sense of physical inferiority, which 
was accentuated by continual nagging at home . . . Mother, in her 
excessive pride, wanted me to appear at my best, and she always 
found many faults that required "covering up" to point out to the 
dressmaker; for instance, drooping shoulders! Heavy hips! Too 
flat in the back! Bust too prominent! Having had a swollen neck 
for years, it was not possible for me to have an open neck. And 
so on. I was particularly worried on account of the appearance of 


my feet ... and I was nagged on account of my gait ... There 
was some truth in every criticism ... but sometimes I was so 
embarrassed, particularly during my "backfisch" stage, that at 
times I was at a loss to know how to move about. If I met 
someone, my first thought was: "If I could only hide my feet!" 38 

This shame makes the girl act awkwardly, blush at the drop of a hat; 
this blushing increases her timidity, and itself becomes the object of a 
phobia. Stekel recounts, among others, a woman who "as a young girl 
blushed so pathologically and violently that for a year she wore 
bandages around her face with the excuse of toothaches." 39 

Sometimes, in prepuberty preceding the arrival of her period, the 
girl does not yet feel disgust for her body; she is proud of becoming a 
woman, she eagerly awaits her maturing breasts, she pads her blouse 
with handkerchiefs and brags around her older sisters; she does not 
yet grasp the meaning of the phenomena taking place in her. Her first 
period exposes this meaning, and feelings of shame appear. If they 
existed already, they are confirmed and magnified from this moment 
on. All the accounts agree: whether or not the child has been warned, 
the event always appears repugnant and humiliating. The mother very 
often neglected to warn her; it has been noted that mothers explain the 
mysteries of pregnancy, childbirth, and even sexual relations to their 
daughters more easily than that of menstruation; 40 they themselves 
hate this feminine servitude, a hatred that reflects men's old mystical 
terrors and one that they transmit to their offspring. When the girl 
finds suspicious stains on her underwear, she thinks she has diarrhea, 
a fatal hemorrhage, a venereal disease. According to a survey that 
Havelock Ellis cited in 1896, out of 125 American high school 
students 36 at the time of their first period knew absolutely nothing on 
the question, 39 had vague ideas; that is, more than half of the girls 
were unaware. And according to Helene Deutsch, things had not 
changed much by 1946. Ellis cites the case of a young girl who threw 
herself into the Seine in Saint-Ouen because she thought she had an 
"unknown disease." Stekel, in Letters to a Mother, tells the story of a 
little girl who tried to commit suicide, seeing in the menstrual flow the 
sign of and punishment for the impurities that sullied her soul. It is 
natural for the young girl to be afraid: it seems to her that her life is 
seeping out of her. According to Klein and the English psychoanalytic 


school, blood is for the young girl the manifestation of a wound of the 
internal organs. Even if cautious advice saves her from excessive 
anxiety, she is ashamed, she feels dirty: she rushes to the sink, she 
tries to wash or hide her dirtied underwear. There is a typical account 
of the experience in Colette Audry's book In the Eyes of Memory: 

At the heart of this exaltation, the brutal and finished drama. One 
evening while getting undressed, I thought I was sick; it did not 
frighten me, and I kept myself from saying anything in the hope 
that it would disappear the next day ... Four weeks later, the 
illness occurred again, but more violently. I was quietly going to 
throw my knickers into the hamper behind the bathroom door. It 
was so hot that the diamond-shaped tiles of the hallway were 
warm under my naked feet. When I then got into bed, Mama 
opened my bedroom door: she came to explain things to me. I 
am unable to remember the effect her words had on me at that 
time, but while she was whispering, Kaki poked her head in. The 
sight of this round and curious face drove me crazy. I screamed 
at her to get out of there and she disappeared in fright. I begged 
Mama to go and beat her because she hadn't knocked before 
entering. My mother's calmness, her knowing and quietly happy 
air, were all it took to make me lose my head. When she left, I 
dug myself in for a stormy night. 

Two memories all of a sudden come back: a few months 
earlier, coming back from a walk with Kaki, Mama and I had 
met the old doctor from Privas, built like a logger with a full 
white beard. "Your daughter is growing up, madam," he said 
while looking at me; and I hated him right then and there without 
understanding anything. A little later, coming back from Paris, 
Mama put away some new little towels in the chest of drawers. 
"What is that?" Kaki asked. Mama had this natural air of adults 
who reveal one part of the truth while omitting the other three: 
"It's for Colette soon." Speechless, unable to utter one question, 
I hated my mother. 

That whole night I tossed and turned in my bed. It was not 
possible. I was going to wake up. Mama was mistaken, it would 
go away and not come back again ... The next day, secretly 
changed and stained, I had to confront the others. I looked at my 


sister with hatred because she did not yet know, because all of a 
sudden she found herself, unknown to her, endowed with an 
overwhelming superiority over me. Then I began to hate men, 
who would never experience this, and who knew. And then I 
also hated women who accepted it so calmly. I was sure that if 
they had been warned of what was happening to me, they would 
all be overjoyed. "So it's your turn now," they would have 
thought. That one too, I said to myself when I saw one. And this 
one too. I was had by the world. I had trouble walking and 
didn't dare run. The earth, the sun-hot greenery, even the food, 
seemed to give off a suspicious smell . . . The crisis passed and I 
began to hope against hope that it would not come back again. 
One month later, I had to face the facts and accept the evil 
definitively, in a heavy stupor this time. There was now in my 
memory a "before." All the rest of my existence would no longer 
be anything but an "after." 

Things happen in a similar way for most little girls. Many of them 
are horrified at the idea of sharing their secret with those around them. 
A friend told me that, motherless, she lived between her father and a 
primary school teacher and spent three months in fear and shame, 
hiding her stained underwear before it was discovered that she had 
begun menstruating. Even peasant women who might be expected to 
be hardened by their knowledge of the harshest sides of animal life 
are horrified by this malediction, which in the countryside is still 
taboo: I knew a young woman farmer who washed her underwear in 
secret in the frozen brook, putting her soaking garment directly back 
on her naked skin to hide her unspeakable secret. I could cite a 
hundred similar facts. Even admitting this astonishing misfortune 
offers no relief. Undoubtedly, the mother who slapped her daughter 
brutally, saying, "Stupid! You're much too young," is exceptional. 
But this is not only about being in a bad mood; most mothers fail to 
give the child the necessary explanations, and so she is full of anxiety 
before this new state brought about by the first menstruation crisis: 
she wonders if the future does not hold other painful surprises for 
her; or else she imagines that from now on she could become 
pregnant by the simple presence or contact with a man, and she feels 
real terror of males. Even if she is spared these anxieties by intelligent 


explanations, she is not so easily granted peace of mind. Prior to this, 
the girl could, with a little bad faith, still think herself an asexual 
being, she could just not think herself; she even dreams of waking up 
one morning changed into a man; these days, mothers and aunts flatter 
and whisper to each other: "She's a big girl now"; the brotherhood of 
matrons has won: she belongs to them. Here she takes her place on 
the women's side without recourse. Sometimes, she is proud of it; she 
thinks she has now become an adult and an upheaval will occur in her 
existence. As Thyde Monnier recounts: 

Some of us had become "big girls" during vacation; others 
would while at school, and then, one after the other in the toilets 
in the courtyard, where they were sitting on their "thrones" like 
queens receiving their subjects, we would go and "see the 
blood." 41 

But the girl is soon disappointed because she sees that she has not 
gained any privilege and that life follows its normal course. The only 
novelty is the disgusting event repeated monthly; there are children 
that cry for hours when they learn they are condemned to this destiny; 
what adds to their revolt is that this shameful defect is known by men 
as well: what they would like is that the humiliating feminine 
condition at least be shrouded in mystery for them. But no, father, 
brothers, cousins, men know and even joke about it sometimes. This 
is when the shame of her too carnal body is born or exacerbated. And 
once the first surprise has passed, the monthly unpleasantness does 
not fade away at all: each time, the girl finds the same disgust when 
faced by this unappetizing and stagnant odor that comes from herself 
— a smell of swamps and wilted violets — this less red and more 
suspicious blood than that flowing from children's cuts and scratches. 
Day and night she has to think of changing her protection, watching 
her underwear, her sheets, and solving a thousand little practical and 
repugnant problems; in thrifty families sanitary napkins are washed 
each month and take their place among the piles of handkerchiefs; this 
waste coming out of oneself has to be delivered to those handling the 
laundry: the laundress, servant, mother, or older sister. The types of 
bandages pharmacies sell in boxes named after flowers, Camellia or 
Edelweiss, are thrown out after use; but while traveling, on vacation, 


or on a trip it is not so easy to get rid of them, the toilet bowl being 
specifically prohibited. The young heroine of the Psychoanalytical 
Journal described her horror of the sanitary napkin; 42 she did not 
even consent to undress in front of her sister except in the dark during 
these times. This bothersome, annoying object can come loose during 
violent exercise; it is a worse humiliation than losing one's knickers in 
the middle of the street: this horrid possibility sometimes brings about 
fits of psychasthenia. By a kind of ill will of nature, indisposition and 
pain often do not begin until the initial bleeding — often hardly noticed 
— has passed; young girls are often irregular: they might be surprised 
during a walk, in the street, at friends'; they risk — like Mme de 
Chevreuse — dirtying their clothes or their seat; such a possibility 
makes one live in constant anxiety. 43 The greater the young girl's 
feeling of revulsion toward this feminine defect, the greater her 
obligation to pay careful attention to it so as not to expose herself to 
the awful humiliation of an accident or a little word of warning. 

Here is the series of answers that Dr. Liepmann obtained during his 
study of juvenile sexuality: 44 

At sixteen years of age, when I was indisposed for the first time, 
I was very frightened in seeing it one morning. In truth, I knew it 
was going to happen, but I was so ashamed of it that I remained 
in bed for a whole half day and had one answer to all questions: 
I cannot get up. 

I was speechless in astonishment when, not yet twelve, I was 
indisposed for the first time. I was struck by horror, and as my 
mother limited herself to telling me drily that this would happen 
every month, I considered it something disgusting and refused to 
accept that this did not also happen to men. 

This adventure made my mother decide to initiate me, without 
forgetting menstruation at the same time. I then had my second 
disappointment because as soon as I was indisposed, I ran 
joyfully to my mother, who was still sleeping, and I woke her 
up, shouting "Mother, I have it!" "And that is why you woke me 
up?" she managed to say in response. In spite of everything, I 
considered this thing a real upheaval in my existence. 


And so I felt the most intense horror when I was indisposed for 
the first time seeing that the bleeding did not stop after a few 
minutes. Nevertheless, I did not whisper a word to anyone, not 
to my mother either. I had just reached the age of fifteen. In 
addition I suffered very little. Only one time was I taken with 
such terrifying pain that I fainted and stayed on the floor in my 
room for almost three hours. But I still did not say anything to 

When for the first time this indisposition occurred, I was about 
thirteen. My school friends and I had already talked about it, and 
I was proud to finally become one of the big girls. With great 
importance I explained to the gym teacher that it was impossible 
today for me to take part in the lesson because I was indisposed. 

It was not my mother who initiated me. It was not until the age 
of nineteen that she had her period, and for fear of being scolded 
for dirtying her underwear, she buried it in a field. 

I reached the age of eighteen, and I then had my period for the 
first time. 45 I was totally unprepared for what was 
happening ... At night, I had violent bleeding accompanied by 
heavy diarrhea, and I could not rest for one second. In the 
morning, my heart racing, I ran to my mother and, weeping 
constantly, asked her advice. But I only obtained this harsh 
reprimand: "You should have been aware of it sooner and not 
have dirtied the sheets and bed." That was all as far as 
explanation was concerned. Naturally, I tried very hard to know 
what crime I might have committed, and I suffered terrible 

I already knew what it was. I was waiting for it impatiently 
because I was hoping my mother would reveal to me how 
children were made. The celebrated day arrived, but my mother 
remained silent. Nevertheless, I was joyous. "From now on," I 
said to myself, "you can make children: you are a lady." 

This crisis takes place at a still tender age; the boy only reaches 


adolescence at about fifteen or sixteen; the girl changes into a woman 
at thirteen or fourteen. But the essential difference in their experience 
does not stem from there; nor does it lie in the physiological 
manifestations that give it its awful shock in the case of the girl: 
puberty has a radically different meaning for the two sexes because it 
does not announce the same future to them. 

Granted, boys too at puberty feel their body as an embarrassing 
presence, but because they have been proud of their virility from 
childhood, it is toward that virility that they proudly transcend the 
moment of their development; they proudly exhibit the hair growing 
between their legs, and that makes men of them; more than ever, their 
sex is an object of comparison and challenge. Becoming adults is an 
intimidating metamorphosis: many adolescents react with anxiety to a 
demanding freedom; but they accede to the dignified status of male 
with joy. On the contrary, to become a grown-up, the girl must 
confine herself within the limits that her femininity imposes on her. 
The boy admires undefined promises in the growing hair: she remains 
confused before the "brutal and finished drama" that limits her 
destiny. Just as the penis gets its privileged value from the social 
context, the social context makes menstruation a malediction. One 
symbolizes virility and the other femininity: it is because femininity 
means alterity and inferiority that its revelation is met with shame. The 
girl's life has always appeared to her to be determined by this 
impalpable essence to which the absence of the penis has not managed 
to give a positive image: it is this essence that is revealed in the red 
flow that escapes from between her thighs. If she has already 
assumed her condition, she welcomes the event with joy: "Now you 
are a lady." If she has always refused it, the bloody verdict strikes her 
like lightning; most often, she hesitates: the menstrual stain inclines 
her toward disgust and fear. "So this is what these words mean: being 
a woman!" The fate that until now has weighed on her ambivalently 
and from the outside is lodged in her belly; there is no escape; she 
feels trapped. In a sexually egalitarian society, she would envisage 
menstruation only as her unique way of acceding to an adult life; the 
human body has many other more repugnant servitudes in men and 
women: they easily make the best of them because as they are 
common to all they do not represent a flaw for anyone; menstrual 
periods inspire horror in adolescent girls because they thrust them into 


an inferior and damaged category. This feeling of degradation will 
weigh heavily on the girl. She would retain the pride of her bleeding 
body if she did not lose her self-respect as a human being. And if she 
succeeds in preserving her self-respect, she will feel the humiliation of 
her flesh much less vividly: the girl who opens paths of transcendence 
in sports, social, intellectual, and mystical activities will not see a 
mutilation in her specificity, and she will overcome it easily. If the 
young girl often develops psychoses in this period, it is because she 
feels defenseless in front of a deaf fate that condemns her to 
unimaginable trials; her femininity signifies illness, suffering, and 
death in her eyes, and she is transfixed by this destiny. 

One example that vividly illustrates these anxieties is that of the 
patient called Molly described by Helene Deutsch: 

Molly was fourteen when she began to suffer from psychic 
disorders; she was the fourth child in a family of five siblings. 
Her father is described as extremely strict and narrow-minded. 
He criticized the appearance and behavior of his children at every 
meal. The mother was worried and unhappy; and every so often 
the parents were not on speaking terms; one brother ran away 
from home. The patient was a gifted youngster, a good tap 
dancer; but she was shy, took the family troubles seriously, and 
was afraid of boys. Her older sister got married against her 
mother's wishes and Molly was very interested in her 
pregnancy: she had a difficult delivery and forceps were 
necessary and she heard that women often die in childbirth. She 
took care of the baby for two months; when the sister left the 
house, there was a terrible scene and the mother fainted. Molly 
fainted too. She had seen classmates faint in class and her 
thoughts were much concerned with death and fainting. When 
she got her period, she told her mother with an embarrassed air: 
"That thing is here." She went with her sister to buy some 
menstrual pads; on meeting a man in the street, she hung her 
head. In general she acted "disgusted with herself." She never 
had pain during her periods, but tried to hide them from her 
mother, even when the latter saw stains on the sheets. She told 
her sister: "Anything might happen to me now. I might have a 
baby." When told: "You have to live with a man for that to 


happen," she replied: "Well, I am living with two men — my 
father and your husband." 

The father did not permit his daughters to go out . . . because 
one heard stories of rape: these fears helped to give Molly the 
idea of men being redoubtable creatures. From her first 
menstruation her anxiety about becoming pregnant and dying in 
childbirth became so severe that after a time she refused to leave 
her room, and now she sometimes stays in bed all day; if she has 
to go out of the house, she has an attack and faints. She is afraid 
of cars and taxis and she cannot sleep, she fears that someone is 
trying to enter the house at night, she screams and cries. She has 
eating spells; sometimes she eats too much to keep herself from 
fainting; she is also afraid when she feels closed in. She cannot 
go to school anymore or lead a normal life. 

A similar story not linked to the crisis of menstruation but which 
shows the girl's anxiety about her insides is Nancy's: 46 

Toward the age of thirteen the little girl was on intimate terms 
with her older sister, and she had been proud to be in her 
confidence when the sister was secretly engaged and then 
married: to share the secret of a grown-up was to be accepted 
among the adults. She lived for a time with her sister; but when 
the latter told her that she was going "to buy" a baby, Nancy got 
jealous of her brother-in-law and of the coming child: to be 
treated again as a child to whom one made little mysteries of 
things was unbearable. She began to experience internal troubles 
and wanted to be operated on for appendicitis. The operation was 
a success, but during her stay at the hospital Nancy lived in a 
state of severe agitation; she made violent scenes with a nurse 
she disliked; she tried to seduce the doctor, making dates with 
him, being provocative and demanding throughout her crises to 
be treated as a woman. She accused herself of being to blame for 
the death of a little brother some years before. And in particular 
she felt sure that they had not removed her appendix or had left a 
part of it inside her; her claim that she had swallowed a penny 
was probably intended to make sure an X-ray would be taken. 


This desire for an operation — and in particular for the removal of the 
appendix — is often seen at this age; girls thus express their fear of 
rape, pregnancy, or having a baby. They feel in their womb obscure 
perils and hope that the surgeon will save them from this unknown 
and threatening danger. 

It is not only the arrival of her period that signals to the girl her 
destiny as a woman. Other dubious phenomena occur in her. Until 
then, her eroticism was clitoral. It is difficult to know if solitary sexual 
practices are less widespread in girls than in boys; the girl indulges in 
them in her first two years, and perhaps even in the first months of 
her life; it seems that she stops at about two before taking them up 
again later; because of his anatomical makeup, this stem planted in the 
male flesh asks to be touched more than a secret mucous membrane: 
but the chances of rubbing — the child climbing on a gym apparatus or 
on trees or onto a bicycle — of contact with clothes, or in a game or 
even initiation by friends, older friends, or adults, frequently make the 
girl discover sensations she tries to renew. In any case, pleasure, 
when reached, is an autonomous sensation: it has the lightness and 
innocence of all childish amusements. 47 As a child, she hardly 
established a relation between these intimate delights and her destiny 
as a woman; her sexual relations with boys, if there were any, were 
essentially based on curiosity. And all of a sudden she experiences 
emotional confusion in which she does not recognize herself. 
Sensitivity of the erogenous zones is developing, and they are so 
numerous in the woman that her whole body can be considered 
erogenous: this is what comes across from familial caresses, innocent 
kisses, the casual touching of a dressmaker, a doctor, a hairdresser, or 
a friendly hand on her hair or neck; she learns and often deliberately 
seeks a deeper excitement in her relations of play and fighting with 
boys or girls: thus Gilberte fighting on the Champs Elysees with 
Proust; in the arms of her dancing partners, under her mother's naive 
eyes, she experiences a strange lassitude. And then, even a well- 
protected young woman is exposed to more specific experiences; in 
conventional circles regrettable incidents are hushed up by common 
agreement; but it often happens that some of the caresses of friends of 
the household, uncles, cousins, not to mention grandfathers and 
fathers, are much less inoffensive than the mother thinks; a professor, 
a priest, or a doctor was bold, indiscreet. Such experiences are found 


in In the Prison of Her Skin by Violette Leduc, in Maternal Hatred 
by Simone de Tervagne, and in The Blue Orange by Yassu Gauclere. 
Stekel thinks that grandfathers in particular are often very dangerous: 

I was fifteen. The night before the funeral, my grandfather came 
to sleep at our house. The next day, my mother was already up, 
he asked me if he could get into bed with me to play; I got up 
immediately without answering him ... I began to be afraid of 
men, a woman recounted. 

Another girl recalled receiving a serious shock at eight or ten 
years of age when her grandfather, an old man of sixty, had 
groped her genitals. He had taken her on his lap while sliding his 
finger into her vagina. The child had felt an immense anxiety but 
yet did not dare talk about it. Since that time she has been very 
afraid of everything sexual. 48 

Such incidents are usually endured in silence by the little girl because 
of the shame they cause. Moreover, if she does reveal them to her 
parents, their reaction is often to reprimand her. "Don't say such 
stupid things ... you've got an evil mind." She is also silent about 
bizarre activities of some strangers. A little girl told Dr. Liepmann: 

We had rented a room from the shoemaker in the basement. 
Often when our landlord was alone, he came to get me, took me 
in his arms, and kissed me for a long time all the while wiggling 
back and forth. His kiss wasn't superficial besides, since he 
stuck his tongue into my mouth. I detested him because of his 
ways. But I never whispered a word, as I was very fearful. 49 

In addition to enterprising companions and perverse girlfriends, 
there is this knee in the cinema pressed against the girl's, this hand at 
night in the train, sliding along her leg, these boys who sniggered 
when she passed, these men who followed her in the street, these 
embraces, these furtive touches. She does not really understand the 
meaning of these adventures. In the fifteen-year-old head, there is 
often a strange confusion because theoretical knowledge and concrete 
experiences do not match. She has already felt all the burnings of 
excitement and desire, but she imagines — like Clara d'Ellebeuse 


invented by Francis Jammes — that a male kiss is enough to make her 
a mother; she has a clear idea of the genital anatomy, but when her 
dancing partner embraces her, she thinks the agitation she feels is a 
migraine. It is certain that girls are better informed today than in the 
past. However, some psychiatrists affirm that there is more than one 
adolescent girl who does not know that sexual organs have a use 
other than urinary. 50 In any case, girls do not draw much connection 
between their sexual agitation and the existence of their genital organs, 
since there is no sign as precise as the male erection indicating this 
correlation. There is such a gap between their romantic musings 
concerning man and love and the crudeness of certain facts that are 
revealed to them that they do not create any link between them. Thyde 
Monnier relates that she had made the pledge with a few girlfriends to 
see how a man was made and to tell it to the others: 

Having entered my father's room on purpose without knocking, 
I described it: "It looks like a leg of lamb; that is, it is like a 
rolling pin, and then there is a round thing." It was difficult to 
explain. I drew it. I even did it three times, and each one took 
hers away hidden in her blouse, and from time to time she burst 
out laughing while looking at it and then went all 
dreamy . . . How could innocent girls like us set up a connection 
between these objects and sentimental songs, pretty little 
romantic stories where love as a whole — respect, shyness, sighs, 
and kissing of the hand — is sublimated to the point of making a 
eunuch? 5 1 

Nevertheless, through reading, conversations, theater, and words 
she has overheard, the girl gives meaning to the disturbances of her 
flesh; she becomes appeal and desire. In her fevers, shivers, 
dampness, and uncertain states, her body takes on a new and 
unsettling dimension. The young man is proud of his sexual 
propensities because he assumes his virility joyfully; sexual desire is 
aggressive and prehensile for him; there is an affirmation of his 
subjectivity and transcendence in it; he boasts of it to his friends; his 
sex organ is for him a disturbance he takes pride in; the drive that 
sends him toward the female is of the same nature as that which 
throws him toward the world, and so he recognizes himself in it. On 


the contrary, the girl's sexual life has always been hidden; when her 
eroticism is transformed and invades her whole flesh, the mystery 
becomes agonizing: she undergoes the disturbance as a shameful 
illness; it is not active: it is a state, and even in imagination she cannot 
get rid of it by any autonomous decision; she does not dream of 
taking, pressing, violating: she is wait and appeal; she feels 
dependent; she feels herself at risk in her alienated flesh. 

Her diffuse hope and her dream of happy passivity clearly reveal 
her body as an object destined for another; she seeks to know sexual 
experience only in its immanence; it is the contact of the hand, mouth, 
or another flesh that she desires; the image of her partner is left in the 
shadows, or she drowns it in an idealized haze; however, she cannot 
prevent his presence from haunting her. Her terrors and juvenile 
revulsions regarding man have assumed a more equivocal character 
than before, and because of that they are more agonizing. Before, they 
stemmed from a profound divorce between the child's organism and 
her future as an adult; now they come from this very complexity that 
the girl feels in her flesh. She understands that she is destined for 
possession because she wants it: and she revolts against her desires. 
She at once wishes for and fears the shameful passivity of the 
consenting prey. She is overwhelmed with confusion at the idea of 
baring herself before a man; but she also senses that she will then be 
given over to his gaze without recourse. The hand that takes and that 
touches has an even more imperious presence than do eyes: it is more 
frightening. But the most obvious and detestable symbol of physical 
possession is penetration by the male's sex organ. The girl hates the 
idea that this body she identifies with may be perforated as one 
perforates leather, that it can be torn as one tears a piece of fabric. But 
the girl refuses more than the wound and the accompanying pain; she 
refuses that these be inflicted. "The idea of being pierced by a man is 
horrible," a girl told me one day. It is not fear of the virile member that 
engenders horror of the man, but this fear is the confirmation and 
symbol; the idea of penetration acquires its obscene and humiliating 
meaning within a more generalized form, of which it is in turn an 
essential element. 

The girl's anxiety shows itself in nightmares that torment her and 
fantasies that haunt her: just when she feels an insidious complaisance 
in herself, the idea of rape becomes obsessive in many cases. It 


manifests itself in dreams and behavior in the form of many more or 
less obvious symbols. The girl explores her room before going to bed 
for fear of finding some robber with shady intentions; she thinks she 
hears thieves in the house; an aggressor comes in through the window 
armed with a knife and he stabs her. In a more or less acute way, men 
inspire terror in her. She begins to feel a certain disgust for her father; 
she can no longer stand the smell of his tobacco, she detests going 
into the bathroom after him; even if she continues to cherish him, this 
physical revulsion is frequent; it takes on an intensified form if the 
child was already hostile to her father, as often happens in the 
youngest children. A dream often encountered by psychiatrists in their 
young female patients is that they imagine being raped by a man in 
front of an older woman and with her consent. It is clear that they are 
symbolically asking their mother for permission to give in to their 
desires. That is because one of the most detestable constraints 
weighing on them is that of hypocrisy. The girl is dedicated to 
"purity," to innocence, at precisely the moment she discovers in and 
around her the mysterious disturbances of life and sex. She has to be 
white like an ermine, transparent like crystal, she is dressed in 
vaporous organdy, her room is decorated with candy-colored 
hangings, people lower their voices when she approaches, she is 
prohibited from seeing indecent books; yet there is not one child on 
earth who does not relish "abominable" images and desires. She tries 
to hide them from her best friend, even from herself; she only wants 
to live or to think by the rules; her self-defiance gives her a devious, 
unhappy, and sickly look; and later, nothing will be harder than 
combating these inhibitions. But in spite of all these repressions, she 
feels oppressed by the weight of unspeakable faults. Her 
metamorphosis into a woman takes place not only in shame but in 
remorse for suffering that shame. 

We understand that the awkward age is a period of painful distress 
for the girl. She does not want to remain a child. But the adult world 
seems frightening or boring to her. Colette Audry says: 

So I wanted to grow up, but never did I seriously dream of 
leading the life I saw adults lead . . . And thus the desire to grow 
up without ever assuming an adult state, without ever feeling 
solidarity with parents, mistresses of the house, housewives, or 


heads of family, was forming in me. 

She would like to free herself from her mother's yoke; but she also 
has an ardent need for her protection. The faults that weigh on her 
consciousness — solitary sexual practices, dubious friendships, 
improper books — make this refuge necessary. The following letter, 
written to a girlfriend by a fifteen-year-old girl, is typical: 

Mother wants me to wear a long dress at the big dance party at 
W.'s — my first long dress. She is surprised that I do not want to. 
I begged her to let me wear my short pink dress for the last 
time ... I am so afraid. This long dress makes me feel as if 
Mummy were going on a long trip and I did not know when she 
would. Isn't that silly? And sometimes she looks at me as 
though I were still a little girl. Ah, if she knew! She would tie 
my hands to the bed and despise me. 52 

Stekel's book Frigidity in Woman is a remarkable document on 
female childhood. In it a Viennese siisse Mddel wrote a detailed 
confession at about the age of twenty-one.* It is a concrete synthesis 
of all the moments we have studied separately: 

"At the age of five I chose for my playmate Richard, a boy of six 
or seven . . . For a long time I had wanted to know how one can 
tell whether a child is a girl or a boy. I was told: by the 
earrings ... or by the nose. This seemed to satisfy me, though I 
had a feeling that they were keeping something from me. 
Suddenly Richard expressed a desire to urinate ... Then the 
thought came to me of lending him my chamber pot . . . When I 
saw his organ, which was something entirely new to me, I went 
into highest raptures: 'What have you there? My, isn't that nice! 
I'd like to have something like that, too.' Whereupon I took hold 
of the membrum and held it enthusiastically . . . My great-aunt's 
cough awoke us . . . and from that day on our doings and games 
were carefully watched." 

At nine she played "marriage" and "doctor" with two other 
boys of eight and ten; they touched her parts and one day one of 
the boys touched her with his organ, saying that her parents had 


done just the same thing when they got married. "This aroused 
my indignation: 'Oh, no! They never did such a nasty thing!' " 
She kept up these games for a long time in a strong sexual 
friendship with the two boys. One day her aunt caught her and 
there was a frightful scene with threats to put her in the 
reformatory. She was prevented from seeing Arthur, whom she 
preferred, and she suffered a good deal from it; her work went 
badly, her writing was deformed, and she became cross-eyed. 
She started another intimacy with Walter and Franz. "Walter 
became the goal of all thoughts and feeling. I permitted him very 
submissively to reach under my dress while I sat or stood in 
front of him at the table, pretending to be busy with a writing 
exercise; whenever my mother . . . opened the door, he withdrew 
his hand on the instant; I, of course, was busy writing ... In the 
course of time, we also behaved as husband and wife; but I 
never allowed him to stay long; whenever he thought he was 
inside me, I tore myself away saying that somebody was 
coming ... I did not reflect that this was 'sinful' . . . 

"My childhood boy friendships were now over. All I had left 
were girl friends. I attached myself to Emmy, a highly refined, 
well-educated girl. One Christmas we exchanged gilded heart- 
shaped lockets with our initials engraved on them — we were, I 
believe, about twelve years of age at the time — and we looked 
upon this as a token of 'engagement'; we swore eternal 
faithfulness 'until death do us part.' I owe to Emmy a goodly 
part of my training. She taught me also a few things regarding 
sexual matters. As far back as during my fifth grade at school I 
began seriously to doubt the veracity of the stork story. I thought 
that children developed within the body and that the abdomen 
must be cut open before a child can be brought out. She filled me 
with particular horror of self-abuse. In school the Gospels 
contributed a share towards opening our eyes with regard to 
certain sexual matters. For instance, when Mary came to 
Elizabeth, the child is said to have 'leaped in her womb'; and we 
read other similarly remarkable Bible passages. We underscored 
these words; and when this was discovered the whole class 
barely escaped a 'black mark' in deportment. My girl friend told 
me also about the 'ninth month reminder' to which there is a 


reference in Schiller's The Robbers ... Emmy's father moved 
from our locality and I was again alone. We corresponded, using 
for the purpose a cryptic alphabet which we had devised between 
ourselves; but I was lonesome and finally I attached myself to 
Hedl, a Jewish girl. Once Emmy caught me leaving school in 
Hedl's company; she created a scene on account of her 
jealousy ... I kept up my friendship with Hedl until I entered the 
commercial school. We became close friends. We both dreamed 
of becoming sisters-in-law sometimes, because I was fond of 
one of her brothers. He was a student. Whenever he spoke to me 
I became so confused that I gave him an irrelevant answer. At 
dusk we sat in the music room, huddled together on the little 
divan, and often tears rolled down my cheek for no particular 
reason as he played the piano. 

"Before I befriended Hedl, I went to school for a number of 
weeks with a certain girl, Ella, the daughter of poor people. Once 
she caught her parents in a 'tete-a-tete.' The creaking of the bed 
had awakened her . . . She came and told me that her father had 
crawled on top of her mother, and that the mother had cried out 
terribly; and then the father said to her mother: 'Go quickly and 
wash so that nothing will happen!' After this I was angry at her 
father and avoided him on the street, while for her mother I felt 
the greatest sympathy. (He must have hurt her terribly if she 
cried out so!) 

"Again with another girl I discussed the possible length of the 
male membrum; I had heard that it was 12 to 15 cm long. During 
the fancy-work period (at school) we took the tape-measure and 
indicated the stated length on our stomachs, naturally reaching to 
the navel. This horrified us; if we should ever marry we would 
be literally impaled." 

She saw a male dog excited by the proximity of a female, and 
felt strange stirrings inside herself. "If I saw a horse urinate in 
the street, my eyes were always glued to the wet spot in the road; 
I believe the length of time (urinating) is what always impressed 
me." She watched flies in copulation and in the country 
domesticated animals doing the same. 

"At twelve I suffered a severe attack of tonsillitis. A friendly 
physician was called in. He seated himself on my bed and 


presently he stuck his hand under the covers, almost touching me 
on the genitalia. I exclaimed: 'Don't be so rude!' My mother 
hurried in; the doctor was much embarrassed. He declared I was 
a horrid monkey, saying he merely wanted to pinch me on the 
calf. I was compelled to ask his forgiveness . . . When I finally 
began to menstruate and my father came across the blood-stained 
cloths on one occasion, there was a terrible scene. How did it 
happen that he, so clean a man, had to live among such dirty 
females?... I felt the injustice of being put in the wrong on 
account of my menstruation." At fifteen she communicated with 
another girl in shorthand "so that no one else could decipher our 
missives. There was much to report about conquests. She copied 
for me a vast number of verses from the walls of lavatories; I 
took particular notice of one. It seemed to me that love, which 
ranged so high in my fantasy, was being dragged in the mud by 
it. The verse read: 'What is love's highest aim? Four buttocks on 
a stem.' I decided I would never get into that situation; a man 
who loves a young girl would be unable to ask such a thing of 

"At fifteen and a half I had a new brother. I was tremendously 
jealous, for I had always been the only child in the family. My 
friend reminded me to observe 'how the baby boy was 
constructed,' but with the best intentions I was unable to give her 
the desired information ... I could not look there. At about this 
time another girl described to me a bridal night scene ... I think 
that then I made up my mind to marry after all, for I was very 
curious; only the 'panting like a horse,' as mentioned in the 
description, offended my aesthetic sense . . . Which one of us 
girls would not have gladly married then to undress before the 
beloved and be carried to bed in his arms? It seemed so 

It will perhaps be said — even though this is a normal and not a 
pathological case — that this child was exceptionally "perverse"; she 
was only less watched over than others. If the curiosities and desires 
of "well-bred" girls do not manifest themselves in acts, they 
nonetheless exist in the form of fantasies and games. I once knew a 
very pious and disconcertingly innocent girl — who became an 


accomplished woman, devoted to maternity and religion — who one 
evening confided all trembling to an older woman, "How marvelous it 
must be to get undressed in front of a man! Let's suppose you are my 
husband"; and she began to undress, all trembling with emotion. No 
upbringing can prevent the girl from becoming aware of her body and 
dreaming of her destiny; the most one can do is to impose strict 
repression that will then weigh on her for her whole sexual life. What 
would be desirable is that she be taught, on the contrary, to accept 
herself without excuses and without shame. 

One understands now the drama that rends the adolescent girl at 
puberty: she cannot become "a grown-up" without accepting her 
femininity; she already knew her sex condemned her to a mutilated 
and frozen existence; she now discovers it in the form of an impure 
illness and an obscure crime. Her inferiority was at first understood as 
a privation: the absence of a penis was converted to a stain and fault. 
She makes her way toward the future wounded, shamed, worried, and 

1 . Judith Gautier says in her accounts of her memories that she cried and wasted away 
so terribly when she was pulled away from her wet nurse that she had to be reunited 
with her. She was weaned much later. 

2. This is Dr. Lacan's theory in Les complexes familiaux dans la formation de 
I'individu (Family Complexes in the Formation of the Individual). This fundamental 
fact would explain that during its development "the self keeps the ambiguous form of 

3. In L 'orange bleue (The Blue Orange), Yassu Gauclere says about her father: "His 
good mood seemed as fearsome as his impatiences because nothing explained to me 
what could bring it about ... As uncertain of the changes in his mood as I would have 
been of a god's whims, I revered him with anxiety ... I threw out my words as I might 
have played heads or tails, wondering how they would be received." And further on, 
she tells the following anecdote: "For example, one day, after being scolded, I began 
my litany: old table, floor brush, stove, large bowl, milk bottle, casserole, and so on. 
My mother heard me and burst out laughing ... A few days later, I tried to use my 
litany to soften my grandmother, who once again had scolded me: I should have 
known better this time. Instead of making her laugh, I made her angrier and got an 
extra punishment. I told myself that adults' behavior was truly incomprehensible." 

4. Le sabbath (Witches' Sabbath). 


5. "And already beginning to exercise his codpiece, which each and every day his 
nurses would adorn with lovely bouquets, fine ribbons, beautiful flowers, pretty tufts, 
and they spent their time bringing it back and forth between their hands like a cylinder 
of salve, then they laughed their heads off when it raised its ears, as if they liked the 
game. One would call it my little spigot, another my ninepin, another my coral branch, 
another my stopper, my cork, my gimlet, my ramrod, my awl, my pendant." 

6. Cited by A. Balint, The Psychoanalysis of the Nursery . 

7. See Volume I, Chapter 2, this page. 

8. Besides Freud's and Adler's works, there is today an abundant literature on the 
subject. Abraham was the first one to put forward the idea that the girl considered her 
sex a wound resulting from a mutilation. Karen Horney, Jones, Jeanne Lampl-de Groot, 
H. Deutsch, and A. Balint studied the question from a psychoanalytical point of view. 
Saussure tries to reconcile psychoanalysis with Piaget's and Luquet's ideas. See also 
Pollack, Children 's Ideas on Sex Differences . 

9. Cited by A. Balint. 

10. "On the Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women," International Journal of 
Psycho analysis (1923-24). 

1 1 . Montherlant's "The caterpillars," June Solstice. 

12. See Volume I, Part One, Chapter 2. 

1 3. It is clear, though, in some cases. 

14. Cf. Ellis [discussion of "undinism" in Studies in the Psychology of Sex. — TRANS.]. 

1 5. H. Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 13. 

16. In an allusion to an episode she related previously: at Portsmouth a modern 
urinette for ladies was opened that called for the standing position; all the clients were 
seen to depart hastily as soon as they entered. 

1 7. Florrie's italics. 

18. "Psychologie genetique et psychanalyse" ("Genetic Psychology and 
Psychoanalysis"), Revue Fran caise de Psychanalyse (1933). 

19. H. Deutsch, Psychology of Women. She also cites the authority of K. Abraham and 
J.H.W. van Ophuijsen. 

20. The analogy between the woman and the doll remains until the adult age; in 
French, a woman is vulgarly called a doll; in English, a dressed-up woman is said to be 
"dolled up." 

* Bashkirtseff, I Am the Most Interesting Book of All . — TRANS. 

21. At least in her early childhood. In today's society, adolescent conflicts could, on 


the contrary, be exacerbated. 

22. There are, of course, many exceptions: but the mother's role in bringing up a boy 
cannot be studied here. 

23. Jung, "Pyschic Conflicts of a Child." 

24. This was a made-up older brother who played a big role in her games. 
* In Jung, Development of Personality. — TRANS. 

25. "His generous person inspired in me a great love and an extreme fear," says Mme de 
Noailles, speaking of her father. "First of all, he astounded me. The first man astounds 
a little girl. I well understood that everything depended on him." 

26. It is worth noting that the cult of the father is most prevalent with the oldest child: 
the man is more involved in his first paternal experience; it is often he who consoles 
his daughter, as he consoles his son, when the mother is occupied with newborns, and 
the daughter becomes ardently attached to him. On the contrary, the younger child 
never has her father to herself; she is ordinarily jealous of both him and her older 
sister; she attaches herself to that same sister whom the devoted father invests with 
great prestige, or she turns to her mother, or she revolts against her family and looks 
for relief somewhere else. In large families, the youngest girl child finds other ways to 
have a special place. Of course, many circumstances can motivate the father to have 
special preferences. But almost all of the cases I know confirm this observation on the 
contrasting attitudes of the oldest and the youngest sisters. 

27. "Moreover, I was no longer suffering from my inability to see God, because I had 
recently managed to imagine him in the form of my dead grandfather; this image in 
truth was rather human; but I had quickly glorified it by separating my grandfather's 
head from his bust and mentally putting it on a sky blue background where white 
clouds made him a collar," Yassu Gauclere says in The Blue Orange. 

28. There is no doubt that women are infinitely more passive, given to man, servile, 
and humiliated in Catholic countries, Italy, Spain, and France, than in the Protestant 
Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon ones. And this comes in great part from their own 
attitude: the cult of the Virgin, confession, and so on invites them to masochism. 

29. Auxyeux du souvenir (In the Eyes of Memory). 

30. Unlike Le Hardouin's masochistic imagination, Audry's is sadistic. She wants the 
beloved to be wounded, in danger, for her to save him heroically, not without 
humiliating him. This is a personal note, characteristic of a woman who will never 
accept passivity and will attempt to conquer her autonomy as a human being. 

31. Cf. V. Leduc, L'asphyxie (In the Prison of Her Skin); S. de Tervagne, La haine 
maternelle (Maternal Hatred); H. Bazin, Vipere au poing (Viper in the Fist). 


32. There is an exception, for example, in a Swiss school where boys and girls 
participating in the same coeducation, in privileged conditions of comfort and 
freedom, all declared themselves satisfied; but such circumstances are exceptional. 
Obviously, the girls could be as happy as the boys, but in present society the fact is 
that they are not. 

33. Richard Wright, Native Son. 

34. See Introduction to Volume I. 

* Claudine's House. — TRANS. 

35. Cited by Dr. W. Liepmann, Youth and Sexuality. 

36. "Filled with repugnance, I implored God to grant me a religious vocation that 
would allow me to escape the laws of maternity. And after having long reflected on the 
repugnant mysteries that I hid in spite of myself, reinforced by such repulsion as by a 
divine sign, I concluded: chastity is certainly my vocation," writes Yassu Gauclere in 
The Blue Orange. Among others, the idea of perforation horrified her. "Here, then, is 
what makes the wedding night so terrible! This discovery overwhelmed me, adding the 
physical terror of this operation that I imagined to be extremely painful to the disgust 
I previously felt. My terror would have been all the worse if I had supposed that birth 
came about through the same channel; but having known for a long time that children 
were born from their mother's belly, I believed that they were detached by 

* The Constant Nymph. — TRANS. 

37. These purely physiological processes have already been described in Volume I, 
Chapter 1 . [In Part One, "Destiny." — TRANS.] 

38. Stekel, Frigidity in Woman. 
39. Ibid. 

40. Cf. The works of Daly and Chadwick, cited by Deutsch, in Psychology of Women 

41. Mo; (Me). 

42. Translated by Clara Malraux. 

43. Disguised as a man during the Fronde, Mme de Chevreuse, after a long excursion 
on horseback, was unmasked because of bloodstains seen on the saddle. 

44. Dr. W. Liepmann, Youth and Sexuality. 

45. She was a girl from a very poor Berlin family. 

46. Cited also by H. Deutsch, Psychology of Women. 

47. Except, of course, in numerous cases where the direct or indirect intervention of the 


parents, or religious scruples, make a sin of it. Little girls have sometimes been 
subjected to abominable persecutions, under the pretext of saving them from "bad 

48. Frigidity in Woman. 

49. Liepmann, Youth and Sexuality. 

50. Cf. H. Deutsch, Psychology of Women. 

51. Me. 

52. Quoted by H. Deutsch, Psychology of Women. 
* Siisse Mddel: "sweet girl." — TRANS. 



The Girl 

Throughout her childhood, the little girl was bullied and mutilated; but 
she nonetheless grasped herself as an autonomous individual; in her 
relations with her family and friends, in her studies and games, she 
saw herself in the present as a transcendence: her future passivity was 
something she only imagined. Once she enters puberty, the future not 
only moves closer: it settles into her body; it becomes the most 
concrete reality. It retains the fateful quality it always had; while the 
adolescent boy is actively routed toward adulthood, the girl looks 
forward to the opening of this new and unforeseeable period where 
the plot is already hatched and toward which time is drawing her. As 
she is already detached from her childhood past, the present is for her 
only a transition; she sees no valid ends in it, only occupations. In a 
more or less disguised way, her youth is consumed by waiting. She is 
waiting for Man. 

Surely the adolescent boy also dreams of woman, he desires her; 
but she will never be more than one element in his life: she does not 
encapsulate his destiny; from childhood, the little girl, whether 
wishing to realize herself as woman or overcome the limits of her 
femininity, has awaited the male for accomplishment and escape; he 
has the dazzling face of Perseus or Saint George; he is the liberator; 
he is also rich and powerful, he holds the keys to happiness, he is 
Prince Charming. She anticipates that in his caress she will feel 
carried away by the great current of life as when she rested in her 
mother's bosom; subjected to his gentle authority, she will find the 
same security as in her father's arms: the magic of embraces and 
gazes will petrify her back into an idol. She has always been 
convinced of male superiority; this male prestige is not a childish 
mirage; it has economic and social foundations; men are, without any 
question, the masters of the world; everything convinces the 
adolescent girl that it is in her interest to be their vassal; her parents 


prod her on; the father is proud of his daughter's success, the mother 
sees the promise of a prosperous future, friends envy and admire the 
one among them who gets the most masculine admiration; in 
American colleges, the student's status is based on the number of 
dates she has. Marriage is not only an honorable and less strenuous 
career than many others; it alone enables woman to attain her complete 
social dignity and also to realize herself sexually as lover and mother. 
This is the role her entourage thus envisages for her future, as she 
envisages it herself. Everyone unanimously agrees that catching a 
husband — or a protector in some cases — is for her the most important 
of undertakings. In her eyes, man embodies the Other, as she does for 
man; but for her this Other appears in the essential mode, and she 
grasps herself as the inessential opposite him. She will free herself 
from her parents' home, from her mother's hold; she will open up her 
future not by an active conquest but by passively and docilely 
delivering herself into the hands of a new master. 

It has often been declared that if she resigns herself to this 
surrender, it is because physically and morally she has become 
inferior to boys and incapable of competing with them: forsaking 
hopeless competition, she entrusts the assurance of her happiness to a 
member of the superior caste. In fact, her humility does not stem from 
a given inferiority: on the contrary, her humility engenders all her 
failings; its source is in the adolescent girl's past, in the society 
around her, and precisely in this future that is proposed to her. 

True, puberty transforms the girl's body. It is more fragile than 
before; female organs are vulnerable, their functioning delicate; 
strange and uncomfortable, breasts are a burden; they remind her of 
their presence during strenuous exercise, they quiver, they ache. From 
here on, woman's muscle force, endurance, and suppleness are 
inferior to man's. Hormonal imbalances create nervous and 
vasomotor instability. Menstrual periods are painful: headaches, 
stiffness, and abdominal cramps make normal activities painful and 
even impossible; added to these discomforts are psychic problems; 
nervous and irritable, the woman frequently undergoes a state of 
semi-alienation each month; central control of the nervous and 
sympathetic systems is no longer assured; circulation problems and 
some autointoxications turn the body into a screen between the 
woman and the world, a burning fog that weighs on her, stifling her 


and separating her: experienced through this suffering and passive 
flesh, the entire universe is a burden too heavy to bear. Oppressed and 
submerged, she becomes a stranger to herself because she is a 
stranger to the rest of the world. Syntheses disintegrate, instants are 
no longer connected, others are recognized but only abstractly; and if 
reasoning and logic do remain intact, as in melancholic delirium, they 
are subordinated to passions that surge out of organic disorder. These 
facts are extremely important; but the way the woman becomes 
conscious of them gives them their weight. 

At about thirteen, boys serve a veritable apprenticeship in violence, 
developing their aggressiveness, their will for power, and their taste 
for competition; it is exactly at this moment that the little girl 
renounces rough games. Some sports remain accessible to her, but 
sport that is specialization, submission to artificial rules, does not 
offer the equivalent of a spontaneous and habitual recourse to force; it 
is marginal to life; it does not teach about the world and about one's 
self as intimately as does an unruly fight or an impulsive rock climb. 
The sportswoman never feels the conqueror's pride of the boy who 
pins down his comrade. In fact, in many countries, most girls have no 
athletic training; like fights, climbing is forbidden to them, they only 
submit to their bodies passively; far more clearly than in their early 
years, they must forgo emerging beyond the given world, affirming 
themselves above the rest of humanity: they are banned from 
exploring, daring, pushing back the limits of the possible. In 
particular, the attitude of defiance, so important for boys, is unknown 
to them; true, women compare themselves with each other, but 
defiance is something other than these passive confrontations: two 
freedoms confront each other as having a hold on the world whose 
limits they intend to push; climbing higher than a friend or getting the 
better in arm wrestling is affirming one's sovereignty over the world. 
These conquering actions are not permitted to the girl, and violence in 
particular is not permitted to her. Undoubtedly, in the adult world 
brute force plays no great role in normal times; but it nonetheless 
haunts the world; much of masculine behavior arises in a setting of 
potential violence: on every street corner skirmishes are waiting to 
happen; in most cases they are aborted; but it is enough for the man to 
feel in his fists his will for self-affirmation for him to feel confirmed 
in his sovereignty. The male has recourse to his fists and fighting 


when he encounters any affront or attempt to reduce him to an object: 
he does not let himself be transcended by others; he finds himself 
again in the heart of his subjectivity. Violence is the authentic test of 
every person's attachment to himself, his passions, and his own will; 
to radically reject it is to reject all objective truth, it is to isolate one's 
self in an abstract subjectivity; an anger or a revolt that does not exert 
itself in muscles remains imaginary. It is a terrible frustration not to be 
able to imprint the movements of one's heart on the face of the earth. 
In the South of the United States, it is strictly impossible for a black 
person to use violence against whites; this rule is the key to the 
mysterious "black soul"; the way the black experiences himself in the 
white world, his behavior in adjusting to it, the compensations he 
seeks, his whole way of feeling and acting, are explained on the basis 
of the passivity to which he is condemned. During the Occupation, 
the French who had decided not to let themselves resort to violent 
gestures against the occupants even in cases of provocation (whether 
out of egotistical prudence or because they had overriding duties) felt 
their situation in the world profoundly overturned: depending upon 
the whims of others, they could be changed into objects, their 
subjectivity no longer had the means to express itself concretely, it 
was merely a secondary phenomenon. In the same way, for the 
adolescent boy who is allowed to manifest himself imperiously, the 
universe has a totally different face from what it has for the adolescent 
girl whose feelings are deprived of immediate effectiveness; the 
former ceaselessly calls the world into question, he can at every 
instance revolt against the given and thus has the impression of 
actively confirming it when he accepts it; the latter only submits to it; 
the world is defined without her, and its face is immutable. This lack 
of physical power expresses itself as a more general timidity: she does 
not believe in a force she has not felt in her body, she does not dare to 
be enterprising, to revolt, to invent; doomed to docility, to resignation, 
she can only accept a place that society has already made for her. She 
accepts the order of things as a given. A woman told me that all 
through her youth, she denied her physical weakness with fierce bad 
faith; to accept it would have been to lose her taste and courage to 
undertake anything, even in intellectual or political fields. I knew a 
girl, brought up as a tomboy and exceptionally vigorous, who thought 
she was as strong as a man; though she was very pretty, though she 


had painful periods every month, she was completely unconscious of 
her femininity; she had a boy's toughness, exuberance of life, and 
initiative; she had a boy's boldness: on the street she would not 
hesitate to jump into a fistfight if she saw a child or a woman 
harassed. One or two bad experiences revealed to her that brute force 
is on the male's side. When she became aware of her weakness, a 
great part of her assurance crumbled; this was the beginning of an 
evolution that led her to feminize herself, to realize herself as 
passivity, to accept dependence. To lose confidence in one's body is 
to lose confidence in one's self. One needs only to see the importance 
that young men give to their muscles to understand that every subject 
grasps his body as his objective expression. 

The young man's erotic drives only go to confirm the pride that he 
obtains from his body: he discovers in it the sign of transcendence 
and its power. The girl can succeed in accepting her desires: but most 
often they retain a shameful nature. Her whole body is experienced as 
embarrassment. The defiance she felt as a child regarding her 
"insides" contributes to giving the menstrual crisis the dubious nature 
that renders it loathsome. The psychic attitude evoked by menstrual 
servitude constitutes a heavy handicap. The threat that weighs on the 
girl during certain periods can seem so intolerable for her that she will 
give up expeditions and pleasures out of fear of her disgrace 
becoming known. The horror that this inspires has repercussions on 
her organism and increases her disorders and pains. It has been seen 
that one of the characteristics of female physiology is the tight link 
between endocrinal secretions and the nervous system: there is 
reciprocal action; a woman's body — and specifically the girl's — is a 
"hysterical" body in the sense that there is, so to speak, no distance 
between psychic life and its physiological realization. The turmoil 
brought about by the girl's discovery of the problems of puberty 
exacerbates them. Because her body is suspect to her, she scrutinizes 
it with anxiety and sees it as sick: it is sick. It has been seen that 
indeed this body is fragile and real organic disorders arise; but 
gynecologists concur that nine-tenths of their patients have imaginary 
illnesses; that is, either their illnesses have no physiological reality, or 
the organic disorder itself stems from a psychic attitude. To a great 
extent, the anguish of being a woman eats away at the female body. 

It is clear that if woman's biological situation constitutes a handicap 


for her, it is because of the perspective from which it is grasped. 
Nervous frailty and vasomotor instability, when they do not become 
pathological, do not keep her from any profession: among males 
themselves, there is a great diversity of temperament. A one- or two- 
day indisposition per month, even painful, is not an obstacle either; in 
fact, many women accommodate themselves to it, particularly women 
for whom the monthly "curse" could be most bothersome: athletes, 
travelers, and women who do strenuous work. Most professions 
demand no more energy than women can provide. And in sports, the 
goal is not to succeed independently of physical aptitudes: it is the 
accomplishment of perfection proper to each organism; the 
lightweight champion is as worthy as the heavyweight; a female ski 
champion is no less a champion than the male who is more rapid than 
she: they belong to two different categories. It is precisely athletes 
who, positively concerned with their own accomplishments, feel the 
least handicapped in comparison to men. But nonetheless her physical 
weakness does not allow the woman to learn the lessons of violence: 
if it were possible to assert herself in her body and be part of the 
world in some other way, this deficiency would be easily 
compensated. If she could swim, scale rocks, pilot a plane, battle the 
elements, take risks, and venture out, she would not feel the timidity 
toward the world that I spoke about. It is within the whole context of 
a situation that leaves her few outlets that these singularities take on 
their importance, and not immediately but by confirming the 
inferiority complex that was developed in her by her childhood. 

It is this complex as well that will weigh on her intellectual 
accomplishments. It has often been noted that from puberty, the girl 
loses ground in intellectual and artistic fields. There are many reasons 
for this. One of the most common is that the adolescent girl does not 
receive the same encouragement accorded to her brothers; on the 
contrary, she is expected to be a woman as well, and she must add to 
her professional work the duties that femininity implies. The 
headmistress of a professional school made these comments on the 

The girl suddenly becomes a being who earns her living by 
working. She has new desires that have nothing to do with the 
family. It very often happens that she must make quite a 


considerable effort . . . she gets home at night exhausted, her head 
stuffed with the day's events ... How will she be received? Her 
mother sends her right out to do an errand. There are home 
chores left unfinished to do, and she still has to take care of her 
own clothes. It is impossible to disconnect from the personal 
thoughts that continue to preoccupy her. She feels unhappy and 
compares her situation with that of her brother, who has no 
duties at home, and she revolts. 1 

Housework or everyday chores that the mother does not hesitate to 
impose on the girl student or trainee completely exhaust her. During 
the war I saw my students in Sevres worn out by family tasks added 
on top of their schoolwork: one developed Pott's disease, the other 
meningitis. Mothers — we will see — are blindly hostile to freeing their 
daughters and, more or less deliberately, work at bullying them even 
more; for the adolescent boy, his effort to become a man is respected, 
and he is already granted great freedom. The girl is required to stay 
home; her outside activities are watched over: she is never encouraged 
to organize her own fun and pleasure. It is rare to see women organize 
a long hike on their own, a walking or biking trip, or take part in 
games such as billiards and bowling. Beyond a lack of initiative that 
comes from their education, customs make their independence 
difficult. If they wander the streets, they are stared at, accosted. I 
know some girls, far from shy, who get no enjoyment strolling 
through Paris alone because, incessantly bothered, they are 
incessantly on their guard: all their pleasure is ruined. If girl students 
run through the streets in happy groups as boys do, they attract 
attention; striding along, singing, talking, and laughing loudly or 
eating an apple are provocations, and they will be insulted or followed 
or approached. Lightheartedness immediately becomes a lack of 
decorum. This self-control imposed on the woman becomes second 
nature for "the well-bred girl" and kills spontaneity; lively exuberance 
is crushed. The result is tension and boredom. This boredom is 
contagious: girls tire of each other quickly; being in the same prison 
does not create solidarity among them, and this is one of the reasons 
the company of boys becomes so necessary. This inability to be self- 
sufficient brings on a shyness that extends over their whole lives and 
even marks their work. They think that brilliant triumphs are reserved 


for men; they do not dare aim too high. It has already been observed 
that fifteen-ye